Spotlight would deserve to be seen for its message alone. But it’s also a fantastic piece of slowburn cinema.
Spotlight is probably the most depressing film of the year. Which given that this is the year Room came out is saying something. It recounts the investigation by journalists at the Boston Globe which uncovered the prevalence of clerical sexual abuse in the city. The message that this is a ‘super depressing film about abuse’ may not leave you desperate to see it. Nonetheless, you should.
That’s partly because it’s an important film.
Despite what one might assume from the plot, the main villains are not paedophile priests. True, the audience is left in no doubt about the damage they do. Nonetheless, this is the story of an investigation into abuse rather than the abuse itself. We hear about attacks secondhand and the details are not lingered on.
What is explored in depth is why these crimes were tolerated for so long. And by whom. The journalists depicted in Spotlight were not the first to expose abuse by members of the clergy. What they did do was show the lengths that Boston’s Catholic hierarchy went to prevent these abusers being prosecuted or otherwise exposed. Indeed, they generally just sent them to new parishes to harm new victims.
Spotlight strongly suggests that it was common knowledge in Boston that a large number of priests were a danger to children. But in a city where Catholicism was an important social glue, many establishment figures felt it was better to leave this truth unspoken. The film repeatedly shows the subtle but nonetheless substantial pressure placed on anyone contemplating bringing these private traumas into the public eye. That presents the viewer with an awkward question: in a similar situation would I choose to speak or to be silent?
However, I don’t want to suggest you should see Spotlight out of a sense of duty. Despite its grim subject matter, it’s a compelling procedural. A combination of excellent directing, cinematography and acting make it a compelling watch.
Ruffalo and McAdams deserve their Oscar nominations, and Keaton is hard done by not to have received one. But Liev Schreiber as their editor is the real standout.
The filmakers do especially well to maintain an even pace and tone. The horror of the situation is almost inexpressably vast yet it not something like says 9/11 that forms in a nightmarish moment. It was decades in the making and was revealed slowly and carefully by people whose occupation requires them to eschew melodrama. To make that as riveting as it is the ultimate in slowburn cinema.
Verdict: 9/10 – Not only the year’s most depressing film but also one of its most important and engaging.