Once upon a time, Johnny Depp was a promising young actor making a successful move from television to the big screen. Early films like Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Donnie Brasco showcased his chameleon-like ability to slip into a variety of different characters, while at the same time proving that the guy had some serious talent. He then, of course, hit the mainstream big time with Pirates of the Caribbean, but as he continued to navigate the waters of blockbuster filmmaking and characters that stretched the limits of “colorful”, his recent string of films have failed to make much of a creative dent, prompting some to wonder where the talent he so vitally showed early on had gone.
With director Scott Cooper’s crime drama Black Mass, however, (which just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival—read Matt’s review here) Depp seems to be making a statement that he’s game to return to dramatic filmmaking in a big way, and it could very well lead to his fourth Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Depp is genuinely terrifying as he wholly inhabits the role of Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston crime lord who terrorized the city for decades. Despite the heavy makeup and physical transformation, this isn’t Depp hamming it up for the sake of playing dress up; he appears to tackle the role with the understanding that the wounds Bulger left on his many victims have yet to heal, and so he rightfully opts not to delve into a cartoonish portrayal—though make no mistake, this is still very much a “colorful” Johnny Depp performance. Regardless, this is Depp’s best live-action performance in over a decade, and given that the actor has been nominated for an Oscar thrice before and is now making a big return to dramatic fare, I imagine he’ll be a part of the Best Actor conversation going forward. But while his transformation may be the flashiest aspect of Black Mass, it’s another actor who comes away the standout of the film.
Joel Edgerton, who fills the role of John Connolly, an FBI agent and childhood friend of Bulger’s who convinces the crime boss to turn informant, nearly upstages Depp as he turns in a surprisingly complex performance in what amounts to the heart of the film. It could be argued that Black Mass is Connolly’s movie, and Edgerton does a tremendous job of tracking the character’s evolution from straight agent to arrogantly corrupt in an arc that’s more dynamic than the one given to Bulger. It’s unclear at this point if Warner Bros. will be campaigning both Depp and Edgerton for Best Actor or if they’ll be submitting Edgerton as Supporting, but he certainly deserves consideration nonetheless, and I could see him faring quite well in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Julianne Nicholson also turns in a strong performance as Connolly’s wife, but while Cooper assembled an absolutely stellar ensemble, most of the actors are relegated to relatively little screentime beyond Depp and Edgerton.
As for the film as a whole, it’s engaging yet familiar—a little too straightforward—and critical response has been rather mixed so I’m not sure a Best Picture shot is in the cards. Cooper touches on some interesting visuals throughout, especially with regards to how he stages the various murder scenes, and his handle on character is strong, but the film doesn’t feel like it’ll be much of a serious player beyond a couple of potential acting nominations. Though recognition for Stefania Cella’s lived-in production design would certainly be warranted, and I imagine the stunning makeup work will be noted as well.
But the Best Actor race is starting to heat up, and Depp delivers a swell performance that reminds us of his talent just in time. He’s an Academy favorite and I imagine most will be thrilled to see him returning to the dramatic world, so he’s certainly on to keep an eye on as the awards season progresses.
Click on the links below to peruse more Oscar Beat dispatches from TIFF 2015:
- ‘Sicario’ Has the Goods to Be a Significant Awards Player
- ‘The Danish Girl’ Launches Redmayne, Vikander, Hooper into Oscar Fray