I rewatched Martin Scorsese's The Departed recently, which reminded me how much I enjoyed the film. It gets a lot of stick for not being worthy of the Best Director Oscar that Scorsese finally won for it, but I liked the double-double-cross structure and thought the central performances —Matt Damon as a mole in the FBI and Leonardo Di Caprio as an undercover cop — made it pretty compelling viewing. Jack Nicholson's performance as the crime boss at the centre of the film is said to be based on real-life Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger, who is the subject of Scott Cooper's new film Black Mass. Somehow, though, despite the great potential for drama that the real-world events should inspire and despite Johnny Depp's widely acclaimed turn as Bulger, the film felt clumsily paced and strangely unengaging.
As the film opens, one of Bulger's associates, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) is agreeing to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence. We then jump back to 1975 when a younger Kevin first starts working for Bulger as a driver and a heavy. Much of the film is seen through his eyes, although he isn't very central to the action. The key relationship in the film is between Bulger and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who grew up with Bulger and his younger brother, Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) in South Boston. Connolly persuades the older Bulger to become an FBI informant and then provides him with information Bulger can then feed back to the FBI.
Time ticks by and Bulger's crimes continue to mount up, forcing Connolly to take additional steps to cover up his own actions as his boss (Kevin Bacon) becomes more suspicious. Murders, threats and intimidation rack up, but beyond Connolly's loyalty to his childhood friend and to 'Southie', his motivation for helping Bulger remains somewhat two-dimensional. And there really is no one to root for in Black Mass — not that such horrific real-life crimes should be glamorised for the sake of entertainment, of course, and perhaps that is why The Departed works better as a cinematic piece. Depp's physical transformation is impressive and his performance is good, if not outstanding and not really enough to mask the film's other shortcomings. Black Mass often seemed to drag, loose ends were left untied and it just never really built up the necessary momentum. It didn't help that several characters looked quite similar (with all the prosthetics and make-up, I initially thought that 1990s Kevin was Connolly's character) and that no fewer than five central characters were called John.
I have seen both of Cooper's previous films, Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, and although I enjoyed the former, the latter left me similarly underwhelmed and suffered from similar plotting and pacing issues as Black Mass. Some of this is down to the writing, of course, but Black Mass could have done with losing a good 15 minutes from its run time (it was originally three hours, which is astonishing). Black Mass isn't terrible — there are some nice performances from the ensemble cast, and the mood, feel and look of 1970s and 1980s Boston is spot on — but nor was it as satisfying as I had hoped.