In Black Mass, Dakota Johnson has a high profile role as the steely-but-sweet girlfriend to notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger but for much of her life she was simply known as a child of Hollywood, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.
Despite an acting career that stretches back to 1999, the 25-year-old became a sensation just last year when she landed the lead role in one of the most anticipated films of the decade.
She beat out half of young Hollywood to play Anastasia Steele in the fastest selling R-rated title ever, Fifty Shades of Grey. She bared all, physically and emotionally; and became famous enough to have designers create clothes for her and an avalanche of interesting scripts to tumble her way. She’ll soon be seen in a Fifty Shades sequel and a remake of the legendary Italian horror film Suspiria.
This week she stars opposite her 21 Jump Street co-star Johnny Depp — they appeared in the 2012 film — as Lindsey Cyr, mother of Bulger’s son and the only person in South Boston who would stand up to the infamous killer.
Cyr is still alive but Johnson didn’t think it was a good idea to meet with her.
“It would have been if my goal had been to be extremely accurate but my goal was to bring out a different side of Jimmy. We talked about meeting her but we decided that it would have added a bunch of components. You wouldn’t see them. You wouldn’t see the stories she was telling because it wasn’t part of our story.”
Instead she studied footage of the former diner waitress and lawyer’s assistant.
“I did as much research as was available to me,” she says, “but the majority of the footage I found on her was pretty recent and it was her looking back on her time with Jimmy Bulger.
“Obviously the time that we see them together (in the film) is when she is quite young. A lot of that came from working it out with (director) Scott Cooper and Johnny.”
In her most intense scene she stares down and out-manoeuvres the controlling gangster after personal tragedy strikes the couple.
“There was a very heavy atmosphere on set but because Johnny was really not himself, he was a completely different person and because I’m not a mother and have never experienced anything as profoundly devastating as losing a child, I think we both completely slipped away from ourselves. That allowed us to create the scene the way it was.”
On acting: Edgerton portrays former FBI agent as a ‘bad dude’
Joel Edgerton didn’t meet the inspiration for his character in Black Mass, former FBI agent John Connolly.
“He’s alive and with us, albeit in federal prison and a little hard to reach,” said the Australian actor. The real-life Connolly was convicted of racketeering and obstruction of justice charges stemming from his relationship with gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
“His version of events doesn’t line up with our version…. I felt like it was a little unfair to go and visit him in federal prison and say, ‘You stay in here while I’m over here making you look like a bad dude.’ It felt like it wasn’t a very genuine thing to do.”
Black Mass sees Johnny Depp playing Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a crime lord-turned-FBI-informant who ruled South Boston and was also the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed.
Bulger was a community minded cold-blooded killer. He loved his neighbourhood, kids, cats and choking people to death with his bare hands.
Depp says “a responsibility to history and truth to some degree” was very important to him going into the project.
“When you’re playing someone who exists or existed,” he says, “there’s a tremendous kind of amount of responsibility, at least for me, no matter whether they’re deemed good or bad or whatever. You have a responsibility to that person.”
The fifty-two year old actor’s performance is already earning early Oscar buzz for the chilling authenticity he brings to a man described in the film as “ripened psychopath.”
Director Scott Cooper says, “I don’t think people come to narrative features for the facts, or for truth. I think you go to documentaries for that. What you do come to narrative features for is psychological truth, emotion and deep humanity. I did not want to make a film strictly about criminals who happened to be humans. I wanted to make a film about humans who happened to be criminals.”
Like many underworld figures, Bulger created his own mythology based on his exploits, making it difficult for co-screenwriter Mark Mallouk and Cooper to discern what was true and what wasn’t.
“Jimmy Bulger had his version of the truth which was different from (accomplice) Stephen Flemmi’s,” said the director, “that was different from (henchman) Kevin Weeks and (hitman) John Martorano. I had to determine what was the story I was going to tell… and tell it as accurately as I could from a very emotional place.”
It’s a hard-edged tale to be sure, fuelled by Bulger’s violent and grim behaviour, but Depp found it best not to judge the character.
“I don’t think any of us wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m so evil. I’m so horrible,’” Depp said. “I approached James Bulger as a human being, who’s multi-faceted and did have a side to him that was human and loving.”
Depp’s performance and the work of his co-stars Dakota Johnson and Joel Edgerton among others, ensure that Black Mass is a complex study of human behaviour, but hopefully, according to Mallouk, not a glamorous one.
“None of wanted anyone walking out of the theatre to go, ‘I want to be Whitey Bulger,’” said Mallouk. “You feel that way after Scarface or Goodfellas or after The Godfather, and I love those movies, but there is a responsibility to not do that here. It feels more like Donnie Brasco. We did not want to create more fuel for the Whitey Bulger myth.”
Cooper says his responsibility as a filmmaker and storyteller was with “the victim’s families because Jimmy Bulger and the men we chronicle in this film left a deep emotional scar on the city of Boston that is still very fresh and widely felt.
“I care what they think about the film and I hope I didn’t trivialize these events.”
In real life Bulger, now eighty-six years old and serving two life terms plus five years at a penitentiary in Florida, was convicted of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, weapons charges and was found to have been involved in 11 murders.
“You talk about six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” says Cooper. “In South Boston or Boston in general it’s two degrees of Whitey Bulger. Everybody had a story and everybody knew him.”
“Southie kids went from playing cops and robbers in the playground to doing it for real on the streets,” says Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), “and like on the playground sometimes it was hard to tell who was who.”
It’s not that hard, really. Not in “Black Mass” anyway. The story of Jimmy ‘Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the crime lord-turned-FBI-informant who ruled South Boston and was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed,” is populated by bad men who do terrible things.
Bulger himself was a community minded cold-blooded killer. He loved his neighbourhood, kids, cats and choking people to death with his bare hands. He was, in the words of FBI agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) a “ripened psychopath.”
“It’s not what you do,” Bulger says, “it’s when and where you do it. If no one sees it didn’t happen.”
“Black Mass” is a gangster thriller in the same vein as ”Goodfellas.” It follows a familiar pattern, the rise, fall and eventual ratting out of a crime boss, but provides more than enough underworld intrigue to keep things interesting. Depp is all coiled menace, a dark-eyed malevolent force capable of helping an old neighbourhood woman with her groceries one moment and killing an old friend the next. He’s unpredictable in the most predictable of ways, but Depp makes sure that Bulger isn’t just an echo of Michael Corleone or Tony Montana by giving him some tender moments with his family, son, mother and brother. It’s terrific work and a welcome change from his recent, extended Caribbean trip.
This is very much Depp’s movie but it is populated by an array of interesting and well-performed characters.
Joel Edgerton is John Connolly, a Southie kid who grew up to become the FBI agent who convinced Bulger to become an informant. Edgerton is always interesting, often in supporting roles. Here in a large, showy part he is all swagger and Brut cologne.
As the assorted bad guys and crooked FBI agents Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Peter Sarsgaard bring the scuzz, but while this is a very male movie, there are three solid performances from the female cast. As Connolly’s wife Julianne Nicholson brings the right amount of scepticism about being airlifted into a world she doesn’t understand and Juno Temple is heartbreaking as a street waif who makes the mistake of trusting Whitey. Dakota Johnson, as Bulger’s common law wife Lindsey Cyr, stands out, riding the line between steeliness and sweetness in her scenes with Depp.
The gangster saga may be the great American movie genre. From Howard Hawks and William A. Wellman to Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, bullets and bangers have been a staple on the big screen. “Black Mass” is another piece of that puzzle, but unlike “Scarface” or “The Godfather” it doesn’t glamourize gang life—this is the underworld’s more down-and-dirty side—but neither does it break much new ground. Perhaps given the extensive Hollywood history of on-screen thuggery there aren’t many new ways to present the rise-and-fall story but director Scott Cooper, Depp and cast at least keep it compelling.