I lived outside of Boston for eight years, in Peterborough, NH. Peterborough is the home of the MacDowell Colony, a residential artistic center. If you get accepted, you get to live in one of the cabins there, bask in the natural splendor of the area, and have your needs attended to while you focus on your art. The center has hosted hundreds of artists who’ve won Pulitzers, Tonys, Oscars, National Book Awards, Grammys, Guggenheims, etc. Thornton Wilder wrote his marvelous play Our Town at the MacDowell Colony.
I lived a half mile away from the Colony, and the only thing I ever wrote while I lived there was checks for food and utilities. I started a sensitive semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel there once and got as far as page three until I realized I was actually a fairly dull person whose life was better suited to a 500-word essay (with photos) on what not to wear or say on first dates.
If you’re looking for inspiration for chilling crime movies, however, you would be well-advised to leave the bucolic MacDowell Colony and drive about 70 miles southeast to South Boston, or “Southie” as is it is more properly known. A slew of outstanding and gritty crime films have been set there (and the rest of Boston) in recent years. Here are five to add to your queue.
Clint Eastwood’s heartbreaking crime melodrama could reasonably be called the inaugural film of the “Gritty Boston Crime Movie” Genre. One of the most popular rentals DVD.com has ever had, this film tells the story of a murder mystery that ricochets over thirty years and three boyhood friends. The film is based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. It features a remarkable cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney. Lehane grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, and had two more novels turned into films: Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Eastwood’s work here as a director is calm, serious, and relentless in his telling of this sorrowful tale. Outstanding script by Brian Helgeland, who won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for L.A. Confidential.
The Affleck Brothers (Ben and Casey) do their hometown proud with this outstanding crime drama—another film based on a Dennis LeHane novel. Ben directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Aaron Stockard, and features Casey in the lead role of Private Investigator Patrick Kenzie. Be aware that this film centers around a brutal case of child molestation and murder. It’s a horrible and complicated story, and is deftly handled by both Afflecks...as much as it pains me to say that because I find both of them fairly appalling characters in real life.
When I lived outside Boston in the 1980s, notorious crime boss Whitey Bulger lived a fairly open life, often seen riding the T (the train system) like any other retired Boston gentleman. And then he disappeared and was on the lam for almost twenty years, ultimately living in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, CA. Whitey’s brother, James, was the President of the Massachusetts State Senate and the most powerful politician in the state during those years. Clearly, a fascinating figure and the subject of two movies: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Scott Cooper’s Bulger biopic, Black Mass.
The Departed (2006)
This is one of my favorite Scorsese films. It stars Jack Nicholson as Boston gangster Frank Costello, but everyone knows Costello is Bulger. While the story mirrors the tale of the pursuit of Bulger by various competing and corrupted police agencies, the film is actually based on a classic 2002 Hong Kong cop film, Internal Affairs. Huge cast in this movie: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, and Alec Baldwin. Finding parking in Hollywood was probably easy while this cast was in Boston filming because nobody was left in town. This is classic Scorsese—complicated bad guys you kinda cheer for, but end up hating, and lots of really bloody violence. Enjoy!
This movie is an example of a film in which a single brilliant performance covers a multitude of unbrilliant sins. Johnny Depp gives the performance of a lifetime as Whitey Bulger, portraying him as cruel, murderous, violent, and dangerous in any given moment. The film itself, however, has virtually nothing to say, I thought. Its main point seems to have been: boy, that Whitey Bulger is bad. No reflecting on the role of gangsters in our society, which is always what makes Scorsese’s gangster movies so compelling. Still, I would always watch this movie if only because of Depp’s performance. The scene in which he asks for the recipe of the steak he just ate…bone-chilling.
After these first four festivals of grim and depressing crime, time for a palate cleanser. I give you The Town. Sure, it looks like another gritty Boston crime drama with the bleak scenery and the grinding Boston accents. But actually, this movie is more of what I like call a caper movie. In a caper movie, the bad guys are a gang of sharpies who are attempting to pull off a big robbery. You know, along the lines of Ocean’s 11 or The Italian Job. Here the caper is robbing Fenway Park. Hijinks ensue. The movie was written and directed by Ben Affleck, and features a tremendous performance from Jeremy Renner. The Town is not a light-hearted romp by any means, but it sure is lively and entertaining.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.