It seems that each generation of Hollywood leading men is a response to the one that came before. Between the conflicted everyman anti-heroes of the 1970s and the six-pack touting Adonises of the superheroic present came a wave of actors ill at ease with their preternatural good looks, determined to appear slipshod at every available opportunity. Out of this crop, the quintessential masquerading movie star is surely Johnny Depp, who has been hiding himself beneath costumes, outlandish props and layers of makeup since his brooding breakthrough performance as the eponymous topiarist in Edward Scissorhands (1990).
This predilection for production design grew in concert with his box-office success: in the years following his Oscar-nominated role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the sight of Depp unembellished all but disappeared from screens. Inevitably, this has produced diminishing returns: as daring independent features were replaced by distended-but-lucrative blockbusters, he has increasingly given the impression of someone playing dress-up rather than actually acting, each new role bringing another implausible accent and elaborate costume festooned with knick-knacks and gewgaws. (His Tonto in The Lone Ranger  was just the latest in a long line of OTT get-ups.)
At first glance, Scott Cooper’s true crime drama Black Mass, based on a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and British playwright Jez Butterworth, suggests more of the same. As the infamous mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Depp is once again recognisably unrecognisable: chill blue eyes and damaged teeth sit beneath a balding pate on a wan horror show of a face. Starting in the mid-70s and continuing over two decades, the film follows Bulger – ruthless head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang – as he attempts to become the city’s leading crime boss. In an incredible real-life twist, he was substantially aided in this ambition by his relationship with two men: his younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), president of the Massachusetts Senate, and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who persuaded the bureau to recruit Bulger as a major informant. Bulger, unsurprisingly, exploited this position to brutally eliminate his rivals as law enforcement officials consciously looked the other way. With his fingers clasped around Boston’s throat, it’s notable that Bulger himself doesn’t change a significant amount in the film, but instead causes a deep spiritual rot to take hold in those close to him.
Although he has always been drawn to outsiders, narcissists and grotesques, before Black Mass Depp has never played anyone quite so visually repellent. Where his recent screen visages have felt like affectations, here his appearance is in service of the character. Bulger’s ghoulish presence causes tangible discomfort in the people he meets, which the character employs to excruciating effect as a way to assert control through intimation. In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, he has a conversation with Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) that manages to be both calculatedly innocuous and completely threatening at the same time: despite his amorality and utter lack of empathy, Depp’s Bulger understands human behaviour all too well, aware that touching someone’s face can be as distressing as a brutal act of violence.
Any sprawling American film about organised crime produced today, even a richly satisfying one, finds itself at the disadvantage of standing within a long cinematic shadow. Escape comes only with some distinguishing element; in this case it is Depp’s complicated, vampiric performance – one of his strongest in years. In recent interviews, the actor has downplayed the idea that he’s doing anything different in Black Mass, but that’s not quite true: he’s palpably trying. It’s certainly a better look for him than face paint and a dead crow strapped to his head.
Published in Curzon Issue 53.