TELLURIDE, Colo. — Here’s the thing: Johnny Depp never went anywhere. That’s how filmmaker Scott Cooper put it when we chatted following a screening of “Black Mass” here Sunday afternoon, and it speaks to something that is already on the verge of annoying me this season.
Sure, “Johnny Depp’s comeback” is a fun narrative, but it’s also a rather facile one. While the actor has certainly been taking on roles in paycheck movie after paycheck movie, and while many of them have been artistic misfires, his commitment to his characters has been remarkably consistent.
I look at stuff like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Dark Shadows” and “The Libertine,” for a few examples, and yeah, I recoil. But Depp was equally possessed in every outing. Also, sure, the bloated franchise extension of the iconography he created in the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” film has worn thin, but he still crafted something for the ages there. Few of his generation can say as much.
Going back to 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands,” Depp’s process has been one of immersion, often with the help of prosthetics. Hunter S. Thompson, Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, the Mad Hatter, Barnabas Collins, Tonto: this is a recent legacy of fully merging with characters to turn out unique portrayals. And to be perfectly honest, James “Whitey” Bulger fits right into that lineage. It’s an electrifying portrayal that gives the actor an opportunity to lose himself in the part. Only this time, the film itself is up for it, too.
So keep a close eye on this one as it inevitably turns into a “story” this season. Depp will no doubt generate tons of best actor Oscar steam along the way, and people will be eager to talk about it in comfy “comeback” terms (particularly given that Cooper is already responsible for ushering one seasoned vet, Jeff Bridges, to his first Oscar in “Crazy Heart”). But the simple fact is Depp’s commitment and work ethic have never really wavered. He just finally found a project that didn’t wilt in the face of it.