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Can ‘Black Mass’ Get Johnny Depp Back in the Awards Game?

The true-life gangster drama has been pitched as Depp's comeback vehicle, but Joel Edgerton is no less prominently featured.

VENICE — A decade ago, Johnny Depp appeared to be fast closing in on his first best actor Oscar. After having acquired a reputation through the 1990s as one of Hollywood’s most singularly creative leading men — giving award-caliber performances in the likes of “Ed Wood” and “Donnie Brasco” — his first nomination was a belated one. He was 40 in 2003: It was a testament to how much respect Depp had earned during his formative years that the Academy finally welcomed him to the club for his flamboyant gonzo turn in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” It was, needless to say, the polar opposite of an Oscar-chasing vehicle. You don’t get nominated for a jokey Disney summer blockbusters unless your peers really, really like you.

He lost to Sean Penn, of course, but it was a close-run thing; Depp had pulled off an upset win at the Screen Actors Guild awards, after all. The year after, the Academy consolidated its approval by nominating his whimsical work as J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland.” He didn’t have a prayer against Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles, but his IOU ticket was filling up nicely. Three years later, he was perhaps lucky to pull off a third nod for trying out his musical chops in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd.” It was divisively stylized work, and the film never quite caught fire in the 2007 awards race, but the message from the Academy was clear: Find the right vehicle, and we might be willing to give you the gold.

To his credit, Depp has never seemed particularly bothered about winning prizes — and indeed, the last few years of his career have seen him chasing more commercial rewards. The pirate lark that earned him that unlikely first nomination has since morphed into a bloated, gargantuan franchise that has largely made critics forget whatever affection they had for his first stab at Jack Sparrow. His Tim Burton partnership has continued in a strictly populist vein: “Alice in Wonderland,” in particular, earned megabucks but iffy reviews. He’s endured a string of mainstream flops, too, from “The Lone Ranger” to “Transcendence” to this year’s woeful “Mortdecai.” Save for Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” — a high-end crime drama that did respectable business but ran out of steam before awards season — it’s not the filmography of an actor hungry for an Oscar.

Since the first publicity stills emerged of Depp in character as notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” — his eternally boyish good looks obscured with latex, milky-blue contacts and an artificially receding hairline — industry pundits have speculated that this is the vehicle to get him back in the awards race. Transformative prosthetics assisting a drastically against-type role in a prestige biopic: It’s an Oscar formula that has been tried and tested.

Director Scott Cooper, meanwhile, directed Jeff Bridges to his long-overdue first Oscar in 2009’s “Crazy Heart”; no one won anything for Cooper’s gritty, grimy, all-star follow-up “Out of the Furnace,” but it still confirmed him as a filmmaker liable to draw committed work from name actors. He certainly attracted a lot of those to his third feature: Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple are among the names joining Depp for this stern, handsome, decades-spanning account of Bulger’s time as an FBI informant.

The campaign is perfectly set up on paper, then. Does the film itself bear it out? Former Variety chief critic Scott Foundas believes so: In a highly positive review, he writes that Depp’s “mesmerizing” performance is the best of his career, describing his Bulger as “a complex, undeniably charismatic figure who draws other criminals and lawmen alike into his cult of sociopathic personality.” That’s certainly the kind of praise that Oscar campaigns are built on, and numerous other critics have expressed similar sentiments following the film’s unveiling Friday morning at the Venice Film Festival.

This writer is a little less sure. Depp is in good, wily form as Bulger, underplaying even the man’s most violent outbursts with a low vocal burr that at times seems indebted to Jack Nicholson. But it’s a role of pretty pinched dramatic range, and while Depp hits its required note of icily implacable menace with film-serving consistency, he’s been more suggestive and expressive in other parts — even ones where he’s been as heavily caked in makeup. (One might say that “Black Mass” shows us Depp as we’ve never seen him before, but that goes for rather a lot of his performances.) That’s not to say awards voters will agree, particularly with Warner Bros. set to promote the film and its star aggressively.

But they may be surprised, upon finally seeing “Black Mass,” to discover that it’s not as Depp-dominated as the early publicity would have you believe. If anything, it’s Joel Edgerton — donning a thick Beantown accent and luxuriant pompadour to play John Connolly, the FBI agent who built a close, corrupt professional relationship with Bulger — who has the film’s principal dramatic arc, holding down the film’s sprawling procedural narrative as Depp ducks out of the action for occasional stretches.

Edgerton isn’t likely to gain many plaudits for a part that may be more internally complex than Depp’s, but isn’t half as vividly insidious. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how his leading status is handled in the studio’s campaign strategy. As for the film’s large, high-profile supporting cast, it’s peppered with sturdy sounding boards and ripe character work — I particularly relished Juno Temple’s brief, scuzzy appearance as a feisty but outmatched prostitute — but none seems striking or substantial enough for awards attention.

And what of the film itself? Taking multiple stylistic cues from the Scorsese playbook, it’s proficient and well-crafted. Lenser Masanobu Takayanagi, whose work on Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” was praised in this space only yesterday, gives the pic a dark, oily veneer in keeping with its tonal nods to American genre cinema of the 1970s — though “Black Mass” actually recalls no film so much as fellow throwback “The Iceman,” a little-seen Michael Shannon vehicle that also premiered at Venice three years ago. Cooper’s bleak, violent film would probably need to capture the public imagination in a big way for a broad spread of voting branches to view it as more than a performance showcase, particularly with so many prestige attractions set to bow after the pic’s September 18 release.

As for how much the Academy still really likes Depp — in a best actor pool that, at this stage, looks perilously crowded — we’ll wait and see.

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