If the story of notorious Boston wrong-sort Whitey Bulger feels familiar, it's because you either have vague recollections of hearing about his dealings with the IRA on the news, or you saw The Departed. Scorsese's film, however, played a lot looser with the facts and characters and used it more as an inspiration for Jack Nicholson's rat mobster than a bible for its plot.
Here, Johnny Depp is surprisingly effective as the actual Whitey, with an inherently grimy feel to the supporting players only adding to the sense of authenticity.
Starting out as a vicious, but small-time local criminal, Whitey Bulger builds an empire via the foundations of a strange alliance with a former childhood friend and now FBI Agent, John Connolly (a superb Edgerton) who has an inexplicable sense of loyalty to him. In an exchange of information with the FBI that ultimately takes down the Boston mafia, Bulger quickly rises to the top of the criminal hierarchy - becoming increasingly violent as he does so.
A biopic by definition, Scott Cooper's film nonetheless has plenty of other fascinating players on the periphery - and all of them are real people. The opening, featuring a low level hoodlum squealing to the police, is a tool that works throughout and occasionally Cooper comes back to these guys as they spill the beans to a bemused detective. It's an interesting choice to break up proceedings, and a smart way of aiding the depths that may otherwise be difficult to dig, given the time constraints and array of names involved spread over such a long period of time.
While the marketing would have you believe that this is Depp's comeback film - and admittedly, it is the best thing he's done since Public Enemies by a mile - Edgerton manages to impress even more. John Connolly was a complex individual and this film doesn't judge him as much as portray him as a man spellbound. A hugely successful agent, the Australian actor plays him on the just the right side of brainwashed. You almost feel sorry for decorated G Man come the final credits, when text reveals the ultimate fate of each character.
A never less than fascinating and occasionally excellent crime flick, Cooper's film is surprisingly generous to the supporting players in Bulger's life and is all the better for it.
It may fall in Steve Jobs' favour come Oscar night, but Joel Edgerton absolutely deserves a nod for his role in this film.