Johnny Depp is known for his chameleonic abilities, whether it’s his decade-long stint as the wisecracking scoundrel Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” or his recent turns as The Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, The Big Bad Wolf and various other fairytale mainstays (what, your parents didn't read “Mortdecai" to you as a child!?). Yet lately, Depp’s acts of shapeshifting, different as the characters may be, have felt like variations of the same old shtick. He barely seems to be trying, relying more on his natural charm and a generous wig budget than any genuine character depth. As Mark Harris recently wrote in a Grantland piece about Depp's flagging career, “He seemed to grow strangely attached to the wrong qualities in his own work, as if what had really interested him about 'Pirates' and 'Neverland' were the eye makeup and velveteen.”
Thank god, then, that Depp’s newest bit of transfiguration — playing Whitey Bulger, the notorious Irish mobster who terrorized Boston in for years, in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” — feels nothing like his recent roles. The film, which centers on the unholy alliance between Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), is a thrilling, old-school gangster yarn with an excellent supporting cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, many others), but Depp is its chilling center: The black mass that makes the movie so compelling.
With his pallid, chapped skin, bright blue contacts and receding hairline, the costuming is certainly a feat, enough to instantly catapult the character into iconic movie villain territory (think Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter or Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh). But Depp's transformation from People's onetime Sexiest Man Alive to balding, quasi-reptilian vampire-mobster is more than skin deep. He disappears into the role, shedding not just himself but the acting signatures he has become known for. Gone is Depp’s trademark whimsy, his flamboyance, his tendency to push his characters into the realm of caricature. In his place stands a chilling sociopath, whose performance consistently elevates “Black Mass” from a gangster film to a horror film.
Bulger is such an eccentric, larger-than-life figure, his story so wild and implausible — a state senator brother, an FBI coverup, a jai alai racket, years as a fugitive on the FBI’s most wanted list — that you’d think it would be easy for Depp to turn the dial up too high. His crimes, too, are so foul (I won’t spoil them here, but I repeatedly had to shield my eyes from the atrocities transpiring onscreen) that many an actor would have turned to entertaining flourishes to make him easier to stomach. As Charles McGrath points out in the New York Times, that's the route Jack Nicholson went when he played the Bulger-inspired Frank Costello in "The Departed," turning him into "an antic, demonic figure." Depp’s Bulger, on the other hand, is deadly serious. He possesses no manic energy, yields no sly winks, radiates no charisma. He feels like a real, flesh-and-blood psychopath, and it makes him captivating to watch (the film will certainly make you want to learn more about Bulger, one of the most fascinating criminal figures of recent times).
“Much will be made of Johnny’s physical transformation here,” director Cooper told the Times. “But the biggest transformation is internal. Johnny Depp is one of the sweetest, nicest people alive, and for him to turn himself into someone as cold and calculating as Whitey like this is just chilling.”
We’ll have a lengthier review when the film premieres stateside September 18, but in the meantime you can get a first look at Depp’s mesmerizing performance below.