There is a scene toward the end of Black Mass, director Scott Cooper's new crime saga dramatizing the life of James "Whitey" Bulger, where the Boston gangster sits down for dinner with a corrupt FBI agent. Over the course of two unbearably tense minutes, Bulger convinces his accomplice to divulge his secret family steak recipe, before twisting that revelation into proof of the man's inability to keep his mouth shut. It's a moment designed for maximum discomfort, and it hangs everything on the talents of its lead actor: Played too broadly and Bulger could come off as Joe Pesci Lite; too darkly and audiences would run out of the movie begging for mercy – and likely pledging a lifetime of vegetarianism. But thanks to a remarkable performance by Johnny Depp, Bulger's intimidation-via-sirloin rockets the thug into the Movie Villains Hall of Fame.
Yes, this is the same Johnny Depp who only nine months ago had audiences recoiling and critics scrambling to meme-ify moustaches thanks to the disastrous Mortdecai. And yes, this is the same Johnny Depp who hasn't yielded a tolerable film since 2009's Public Enemies. (If you'd like to challenge this notion, I point you to Tusk, The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, Transcendence and Into the Woods. Sorry.)
With the help a thick Boston accent, a receding hairline and Cooper's tight direction – which I can only assume involved heavy repetition of the words "restraint" and "please" – Depp returns to a more approving critical sphere. On Monday, Black Mass arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival riding a wave of positive hype from screenings in Venice and Telluride. There are even whispers of an Oscar campaign, which would put Depp in reach of a golden statuette for the first time in almost a decade (he was nominated in 2007 for Sweeney Todd, which in retrospect seems insane – but the Academy Awards have always been a bit bananas).
Yet Depp isn't the only actor heading to TIFF hoping to revive a faltering career. For long-ago A-listers looking to restore their critical bona fides, the festival is a one-stop rebranding blitz.
Ryan Reynolds, a one-time golden boy of Hollywood who sunk two superhero franchises, arrives at TIFF with the quiet character study Mississippi Grind. Rachel McAdams, whose year so far has included the misguided Aloha and the justifiably ridiculed second season of True Detective, is hoping to wipe way those bad memories with the journalism thriller Spotlight. And Shia LaBeouf, who always seems just a few steps away from jail (either of the Hollywood or justice-system variety), is dropping his paper-bag mask with the psychological thriller Man Down.
Each performer could have pulled off a career reinvention without the aid of a film festival. But the hot-house critical environment of TIFF – intensified by the hosannas spilling out of those fests in Italy and Colorado – ensures an amplified marketing microphone. Just as audiences love a good story, so, too, do PR people and studios looking to push a come-from-behind narrative of cinematic redemption. Behold the rehabilitation of Depp/Reynolds/McAdams/LaBeouf! Get in on the ground floor of their triumphant road to Oscar glory while the heat is barely above a simmer! It's critical and media catnip (exhibit A: this very feature).
What's more, smaller, introspective films – with room enough for performers to slowly emote and prove they're capital-A actors – are tailor-made for festival-goers who are used to films getting a little bit weird, especially if there's a recognizable star to help ease them into it. (Black Mass is the exception here, with its large studio backing, ripped-from-the-headlines plot and marquee cast.) But once a festival audience warms up to things, it's only a matter of time before word travels and the redemption arc becomes the only story that matters. The festival, in turn, gets to boast that it helped return an undeservedly shunted star to the limelight.
Sometimes these strategies work better in theory than practice. Just look at last year's edition of TIFF, which saw similar redemption campaigns for Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Kevin Costner (Black or White), John Cusack (Love & Mercy) and Richard Gere (Time Out of Mind). They all sputtered before getting close to the awards-race finish line.
Whether any of this year's hopefuls achieve critical acclaim – Depp looks like a sure-thing; Reynolds is garnering some heat, though he plays backup to a wonderfully nuanced Ben Mendelsohn; McAdams and LaBeouf have more respected co-stars gifted with flashier arcs – is almost beside the point. The mere presence of their projects at a place like TIFF guarantees a glimmer of hope, and at the very least announces to the world that, yes, these actors know that they have messed up, but they are doing all they can to win back your trust.
With any luck, we can look forward to an era where no one ever mentions Mortdecai again.