Johnny Depp, Where Have You Been Hiding?
Black Mass reminds audiences that Johnny Depp can act.
By Jacoby Bancroft, University of Nevada at Reno
Dear Mr. Johnny Depp,
I, like many college kids of this generation, grew up watching your movies and I’m proud to call myself a fan. You have brought to life a slew of iconic characters that people will adore and cherish for many years to come.
Your portrayals of Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka and of course Jack Sparrow…sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow, prove you’re an extremely gifted actor who’s not afraid to immerse himself in the strange and weird. With all that said, I’m actually not sure who you are anymore.
I don’t think any other actor working today could play such a wide range of kooky, eccentric characters, but it’s getting to the point where Johnny Depp the actor has almost completely disappeared. In recent years, you seem to be pushing yourself farther down the rabbit hole, making the colorful characters you play more over-the-top than ever before. It feels like you know that you’ve built up this reputation for dressing in silly costumes and talking in silly voices, so your response is to always raise the stakes and go bigger.
That trajectory isn’t entirely your fault. Your forays into serious acting over the last few years haven’t been embraced very warmly. Transcendence was a big-budget flop, while The Tourist and Public Enemies were limp and boring. You weren’t the problem with any of those films, but they still seemed to frighten you away from projects that require a normal human being at its center.
The problem is your shtick is wearing thin. Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger and Mortdecai all were marketed as “Johnny Depp is another Weird Character” movies, and they all flopped big-time at the box office.
On that point, I’m very sorry to say that your kooky and eccentric character, Inspector Guy Lapointe, in last year’s Tusk, the Kevin Smith directed Comedy-Horror film about Justin Long becoming a Walrus, was the absolute worst. Your performance in that film was a turning point for me. I’ve defended you to my friends relentlessly, saying your weird characters all had some merit in their own way, but I had no words for Guy Lapointe. I know the character is returning in Yoga Hosers, but please stay away from stuff like that from now on. I’m begging you.
The reason why I chose to write to you today is because your new movie, Black Mass, just hit theaters. In it, you portray the notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, and I have one thing to say: it’s your finest performance in a long time. I had forgotten what it was like to see you act seriously and it reminded me of a few of your earlier roles like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
The best thing about your performance is that it blends serious acting with the type of strangeness you’ve become known for. You could have easily made Bulger over-the-top and crazy, and to be honest I thought that’s what I was in for when the movie first started. The first scene you’re in has Bulger chastising a crime partner for continually sticking his fingers into the nuts bowl, licking them and then going back to the bowl.
It’s supposed to show that Bulger’s a hot-head, and throughout the movie, that fact is proven time and time again, but there’s a deeper layer to your performance. Yes, Bulger is a crazy psychopath, but you always portray him as a real person and not a caricature. With your past, making Bulger a caricature would have been easy, but you went the more difficult route to make him somewhat likeable and relatable. I just wish the movie itself spent more time exploring what made Bulger tick.
There’s too much going on in the movie to devote enough time to your character, which is odd given that you’re supposedly the star. A few more scenes with you could have pushed the movie in a better direction, but as of now, Black Mass resides in the weird limbo between average and good. It’s well-directed and extremely well-acted, but overall, apart from your character Mr. Depp, it’s kind of unmemorable.
But that’s ok! This is exactly the stage you should be at right now. You are the best part of the movie, which should help give your career a boost after the slow decline you’ve experienced over the past few years. A mediocre movie anchored by a great performance will increase your Hollywood stock. Compare this to another Boston-set crime drama, The Departed. That’s a fantastic movie and because it was practically a masterpiece on every level, the performances aren’t talked about enough. For Black Mass’s case, everyone will be talking about you Mr. Depp, not the movie.
The big reason why I’m writing to you though, is because you are at a crossroads.
Black Mass will open up better film options for you, but you’re also at a point where it’s easy to fall back on your weird characters.
It’s definitely going to be tempting, as the next two years will see you return to two of your most popular franchises: Alice in Wonderland and Pirates of the Caribbean. Both are going to make a crazy amount of money and there will be a certain allure to falling back on old habits, but I am asking you to stay strong.
I’m telling you Mr. Depp that your biggest weakness can turn into your biggest strength. You have a tendency to gravitate toward weird and eccentric characters, and then you try to give them a bit of humanity and seriousness. It hasn’t worked in recent years, so I’m asking that you switch up the formula.
In your future projects, take serious roles and then infuse a little of your weird and eccentric brand into them. If Black Mass is any indication, that’s how you’ll regain the trust of your audience and the love of the people.