Telluride: 'Black Mass' Propels Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton to Top of Male Acting Races

Black Mass Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

On Saturday night at the Telluride Film Festival, most journalists, including me, felt compelled to skip the first North American screening of Black Mass, a film about Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger starring Johnny Depp, in order to attend the first-anywhere screening of Steve Jobs, since the latter was accompanied by a tribute to its director. Doing so meant that we would have to catch the second Telluride screening of Black Mass, which had its world premiere in Venice, on Sunday morning.

When, bright and early on Sunday, we settled into our seats at the Galaxy Theatre, Black Mass director Scott Cooper — who previously directed the indies Crazy Heart (2009) and Out of the Furnace (2013), but had never been to Telluride before — said, "This [having a film screen at this fest] truly and sincerely is a seminal moment for me, one of the great moments of my life." He paused dramatically before continuing, "I'm just not sure this is a movie to see at 9 o'clock in the morning."

One-hundred-and-twenty-two minutes later, this much was clear: it was a seminal moment for Cooper — and it would have been at any hour of the day. That's how well Black Mass went over.

In this sometimes gruesome crime film — which comes from the studio that invented the genre, Warner Bros., and will be released nationwide on Sept. 17 — Cooper, one of the great actors' directors working today, once again managed to coax out of his performers career-best or near-career-best performances that position them strongly for the awards season.

Since Depp's most recent Oscar nom in 2008 for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he has, frustratingly for his fans, been floundering around in bloated sequels (far too many Pirates of the Caribbean films) and remakes (The Lone Ranger). But in order to play the leader of the notorious Winter Hill Gang over the course of several decades in his life — a criminal who could be as charming as menacing, and who tells his son, "If nobody sees it, it didn't happen" — he had to challenge himself again. The good news is he's still got it: with slicked back hair, a thick Southie accent and the posture of a man who could and does flip on a dime, he feels like a slam-dunk for a best actor nom.

But in my view, which was supported by chatter outside of the theater and around town, Joel Edgerton — playing an FBI agent who grew up with Bulger, convinces him to turn informant and then finds out what it's like to be in business with "Jimmy" — comes pretty close to stealing the show from his better-known costar. The Aussie actor has been impressive in a number of films — most notably 2010's Animal Kingdom, 2011's Warrior, 2012's Zero Dark Thirty and 2013's The Great Gatsby — but he takes things to a different level here. And if he doesn't land a best supporting actor nom, I will be shocked.

In fact, every member of the film's giant ensemble serves their limited role perfectly, from dependable vets like Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll and Rory Cochrane to up-and-comers Julianne Nicholson (Boardwalk Empire), Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad), Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) and Juno Temple, even while playing a hooker with a heart of gold for what seems like the fifth time. The one knock I've heard is that Brit Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Bulger's politican brother, looks nothing like Depp and doesn't quite capture the Boston accent.

The bottom line, in terms of the Oscars? On this early date, it seems that Depp and Edgerton are safe bets in their respective categories; the fact that Depp has never won before could tip the scales in his favor in what promises to be a contentious race, and the fact that Edgerton is so strong in a film that promises to be popular at the box office could boost him in a category that voters usually struggle to fill with worthy contenders. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth's screenplay, which was derived from Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss, also stands a strong shot in the adapted screenplay category. Cooper — who seems like a strong shot for a best director nom for this breakthrough — said before Sunday's screening, "I really had no interest in just making a film about criminals who just happen to be humans, but I wanted to make a film about humans who just happen to be criminals," and he succeeded. And, in the era of five-to-10 slots, there's no reason to think the film itself won't be a best picture nominee as well — perhaps alongside another Boston-set crime drama that has gone over big at this fest, Spotlight.