Black Mass was promoted as Johnny Depp’s return to actorly stature, but critics and audiences have given the new film a lukewarm reception. This led me to recall the performances that made us fall in love with Depp in the first place.
10. Public Enemies (2009)
Depp as John Dillinger squares off against Christian Bale as the policeman in pursuit. When this came out, hot on the heels of the Batman and Pirates franchises, it felt at first as though Depp and Bale should have switched roles – hadn’t Bale played the conflicted hero and Depp the febrile scoundrel quite enough? But here, Depp’s evil comes from the darkest reaches of existential wanderlust – in other words, the part of the American Dream we don’t normally talk about. As Kelly Vance wrote, “Depp imagines [Dillinger] as a combination of Hamlet and his Wade Walker in Cry-Baby — all-American born-to-lose doom with a tinge of Euro glamour. He finally gets a chance to use his Kentucky twang in character and even recycles a line from Bonnie and Clyde: ‘I’m John Dillinger. I rob banks.’” As with the actors in Bonnie and Clyde, Depp brings you deep inside his fatalism and restless ambition, so that when the hammer falls, you can’t believe how much you sympathized with a gangster. In other words, the kind of thing Black Mass needed a little more of.
9. Dead Man (1995)
When it comes to Depp engaging with (his claimed) Native American heritage, would you rather watch him mumble through a Lone Ranger reboot with a bird on his head, or see him exquisitely anchor the kind of white/indigenous buddy film that Little Big Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Outlaw Josey Wales only hinted at becoming? Depp’s marvelous byplay with the indefatigably cheerful Gary Farmer (who is Cayuga) as Nobody (yes, that’s his name) is accentuated by the fact that his character has been mortally wounded (hence the title), and spends most of the film with an expression that a person gets after the doctor says he has a few more minutes to live. This is an all-black-and-white, yet often-psychedelic, western, or anti-western, but thanks to Depp’s unpredictability and Farmer’s wit, you’re free to enjoy it as Butch Cayuga and the Sundance Kid.
8. Sweeney Todd (2007)
Did we need Depp in a musical, much less in a role he could presumably play with a copy of Stella Adler’s “The Art of Acting” tied behind his back? It’s true that singing isn’t Depp’s strongest suit, though the auto-tune covers most of the edges, and it turns out that Depp’s wickedly restrained performance as the title character covers the rest. Like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, this only seems like a scenery-chew in retrospect; when you’re viewing it, Depp is unsettling precisely because of a low-key confidence that’s a heckuva lot more eerie than cheery. Admittedly it does veer into camp territory sometime around Act Three’s 10th bucket of blood, but by then Depp has earned a few histrionic cackles. Wait: did I really just compare Depp’s Todd to the archetypal Hannibal Lecter? Maybe Depp doesn’t quite earn the Chianti, but 80% of Hannibal – just the fava beans – is still well with your time.
7. Donnie Brasco (1997)
The best of Depp’s cat-and-mouse performances, Depp, in the title role, plays an undercover FBI agent getting close to a gangster named Lefty, played with typical virtuosity by Al Pacino. It’s the other side of a half-dozen Scorsese films – that means it’s excellent. Depp is more frazzled than we’re accustomed to; Donnie is missing his wife and kids who are in the suburbs, not seeing him for weeks at a time. Not only is Depp not overmatched by Pacino (as Keanu Reeves was in Devil’s Advocate the year before), but Depp very effectively takes you on a long slow burn from agent to ally, or as Roger Ebert wrote, “For Johnny Depp, Donnie Brasco breaks new ground; he seems a little older here, a little wearier, and he makes the transition from stoolie to friend one subtle step at a time.”
6. Benny & Joon (1993)
Two mismatched misfits learning to trust and even love each other: the plot of every romantic comedy, right? Yet when the characters exhibit disabilities that truly estrange them from society, the familiar story assumes a poignancy and depth. The schizophrenic Joon, played rather effectively by Mary Stuart Masterson, has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, while Sam, played by Depp, knows reality but prefers the fantasy of imitating silent film comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Janet Maslin wrote, “As Mr. Depp and the rest of the film makers surely must have known, an impersonation like that is an all-or-nothing proposition” – and Depp hits the “all.” There are a few moments that are perhaps too cute for their own good, but watching Sam and Joon’s romance (Benny is Joon’s brother and caretaker) is like watching spinning plates – you’ll take all you can get before the crash.
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2003)
Was there really a time when pirates were uncool for kids? Hard as this may be to believe, yes: before 2003, before Johnny Depp played Jack Sparrow and overturned (or turned over) a trillion-dollar industry, savvy? At the still-beating heart of this change sits a performance that was all the more remarkable for shining through the chest of special-effects, setpiece trappings all around it, or as Mark Harris put it, “Depp brought energy and imagination to the table; he was something it’s almost impossible to be when you’re at the center of a summer blockbuster: unexpected.” Without the antics of Depp and co-star Geoffrey Rush, the story of a lovely female hostage, a treasure that turns ghosts to humans, and a young pirate and his daddy issues would have sunk under its own weight. And even then, Disney reportedly admonished Depp for his nuttiness! Imagine how tiresome the film might have been had Depp decided to match co-star Geoffrey Rush for “Avast! Shiver me timbers!”-like intonations – about as entertaining as a bar full of drunk Irishmen. Instead you can feel yourself vibrate whenever Depp’s shoulders do, because you’re never quite sure which sword he’s going to pull out of which performative pocket. Has any actor ever made the 18th century feel closer to us? If Depp is telling the truth about using Keith Richards as inspiration, then his first (only his first, before he started coasting) performance as Jack Sparrow has the same relationship to Richards as The Incredibles has to the Fantastic Four – the best filmic representation they’ll ever have.
4. Ed Wood (1994)
“Unflappable” is a word that reasonably characterizes Depp’s performance of the real-life Edward D. Wood, 1950s B-film-maker extraordinaire. Depp’s Wood never seems to let the vicissitudes of the film business get him down, especially considering he’s not really in that business. If you want to see Depp smile, here’s your chance: he seems to wear a campy game-show host’s grin for almost the entire picture. Yet despite Depp’s surface aplomb as Wood, there are shadings in the corners even before things get seriously pear-shaped in the film’s last hour. In any event, there may not have been a better way to play it: a more serious Wood would have simply seemed pathetic. Understanding Wood’s limitations, thanks to Depp, we don’t even root for Wood to make a good film as much as we just want him to have a look of actual, genuine happiness.
3. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
What’s remarkable about the performance that arguably made Depp a movie star is that it shouldn’t have happened or worked at all. Besides the fact that the role was shopped to Tom Hanks, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, and William Hurt, there’s the artifice of it: the heavy makeup, the hair, the leather, the metal hands, the furtive insecurity at anyone trying to come close to him. Who knows what Downey or Cruise would have done, but Depp is fearless at being fearful. He pulls off two inspired tricks: you believe that non-human Edward’s soul is mortally wounded, and you root for him to emerge from his self-imposed exile and find love with Kim. Since Depp is playing an inventor’s creation, his every utterance seems somehow unlikely, and Depp’s unexpected performance choices accentuate this unlikelihood…like Kim, we want to, and do, love this oddball creature before it somehow slips away.
2. Finding Neverland (2004)
A great star performance tends to consist of a star doing what he’s done before in a new or more revealing way. As J.M. Barrie, a child-loving, childless, child-like Scottish writer who meets a playful group of young siblings and becomes inspired to write Peter Pan, Depp executes just such a performance, hitting every note we hope for as well as a few we didn’t even know we wanted. He’s like Tom Hanks in Big, except that for him playing childish games is the sweet release from Edwardian and career pressures. (The film’s title doesn’t let us forget the ranch where a certain other famous man got too close to kids.) In the hands of a lesser actor we might have felt more frustration – why spend so much time with this other family? Why not have kids of his own? But Depp’s performance is so assured, vigorous, and consistently enchanting – with inestimable support from Kate Winslet and especially Freddie Highmore as the unfoolable Peter – that the rest clicks into place like a good children’s story.
1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1999)
Surpassing the peripatetic, entropic musings of the source material, where the drugged-out, almost somnambulistic Hunter Thompson went looking for the soul of America in and around Las Vegas, Depp, as Thompson, inserts a poignant search for his own soul, resulting in a film of bountiful surprises and rich payoffs. Rarely has an actor playing two hours of frustration found this many colors to paint – in more ways than one. Playing off Benicio Del Toro with a familiarity and energy reminiscent of Jagger playing off of Richards, Depp is so good at playing a deluded drug messiah that even when the characters, and you, are begging for a respite from psychedelia, you find you can’t blink – you don’t want to miss a thing Depp does. Some of us still don’t want to come down from that feeling.