Certain factors consistent across the Commonwealth Of Massachusetts act as bonding agents for the state’s denizens. The mercilessly frigid weather that dominates from mid-September until early April has tempered Massachusettsians into a state of perpetual hardiness. Residents pride themselves on being able to withstand whatever the world can throw at them, whether that’s a cumulative total nearing 10 full feet of snow in a single winter, or one of a handful of terrorist bombings to have taken place on domestic soil. The interstate Napoleonic complex resulting from year after year of not being New York perverts this unifying spirit from its natural course—warm, Midwestern friendliness—and vulcanizes it into a ferociously tribal insularity.
Massachusetts residents instinctually trust one another over any and all outsiders because it’s hard living your whole life in the Bay State. If your hometown team flubbed hard this season, take those tears home, because the faithful stood by for 86 Octobers while the Red Sox contrived new and creative ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. (Chicagoans, those poor bastards, get a pass on that one.) Massachusettsians hold an inexplicable fondness for the coastline’s ice cold beaches, bust balls frequently and with great relish, and wear the “Masshole” epithet like a badge of honor. Nothing encapsulates the state mentality more succinctly than the devout belief in the rightness of the regional accent; it’s not that locals pronounce hahd ah’s in a wicked queeah fashion, it’s just that every single person in the rest of the country is wrong.
A trio of new films in this fall capture the closed-rank mentality of life in Massachusetts with uncommon fidelity. Scott Cooper’s new gangster flick Black Mass was billed by its own advertising as a paint-by-numbers Whitey Bulger biopic with a latex-faced Johnny Depp angling for a return to actorly respectability. In actuality, Cooper’s interests lay slightly elsewhere; Bulger’s only one half of the equation. Joel Edgerton gives a nicely conflicted performance as FBI Agent John Connolly, Bulger’s childhood friend who brought the notorious gangster on as a confidential informant, and his ambiguous motivations for doing so betray the occasionally self-destructive Massachusetts solidarity.
For an informant, Bulger’s not an especially deep well of information, but then, Connolly’s not that interested in drawing from him. The CI label enables Connolly to keep Bulger away from trouble and out of prison. Some counterintuitive force within Connolly compels him to protect Bulger, convincing him that his old pal from the neighborhood can’t possibly be as bad for the town as the no-good “eye-talians” in the North End. In a turn that smacks of slight phoniness, the script ascribes Connolly’s faithfulness to a childhood incident in which Bulger saved his future handler’s life, but viewers can find a much more satisfying answer in the film’s regional-sociology dimension. As a born-and-bred Bostonian, Connolly doesn’t see cops and criminals, he sees us and them. Connolly’s more than willing to overlook Bulger’s robustly expanding criminal empire; his real enemies are the Mafia affiliates reporting from the North End to their higher-ups in New York, and the aggressive new DA who’s come from Jersey to clean up the FBI’s activities in Boston. If someone’s got to run Beantown’s criminal underworld, in Connolly’s estimation, it might as well be someone who gets how the city works.
It’s not that Connolly wants to give Bulger wholesale permission to do as he pleases, however it might violate the law. It’s more that he believes that his lifelong Boston heritage gives him the unique insight to handle a situation that slips out of his control in short order. This same fatally flawed reasoning created the environment that allowed for the abuse scandal at the heart of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which hits theaters on November 6. The trenchant investigative unit at The Boston Globe encounter a surprising amount of pushback from regular townspeople when unearthing the culture of institutionalized sexual misconduct in the Catholic church. The meat-and-potatoes types in South Boston and Dorchester took none too kindly to reporters nosing around their neighborhoods and asking pesky questions. One of the most shocking revelations in the Globe’s Pulitzer-winning exposé was the willingness of locals outside of the church to keep quiet about abuse of which they were fully aware. As the various sources tell it, families were simply mindful of which priests, coaches, or teachers shouldn’t be left alone with a child. Nobody felt the need to bring the police into it—this was a private matter, to be handled internally within the communities it ultimately tore apart.
Even Spotlight team editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) is guilty of this behavior, though not nearly on an equal scale. He bristles at his new superior Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Jew and new transplant to Boston after an extended stint in Florida. Walter jokes with Marty about how he’s already got two strikes on him as far as most of the locals will care, but Walter’s still unsure of this outsider as well. Part of this can be traced back to professional defensiveness—the Globe’s a special, complicated creature, and so it’s only natural for Walter to fret over tinkering from a newbie. But the distance between them goes deeper, too. Walter knows things that Marty will never understand, things that can only come from an upbringing in the area. He knows where to get coffee, which clothes to wear in which neighborhood, who’s willing to talk and who’s not. The cultural outlay of the city is mapped in his DNA.
Robert Eggers’ upcoming debut feature The Witch doesn’t speak to a modern Boston, and yet it still exemplifies the vital importance that Massachusettsians place on community. The colonial vision of horror follows a family cast out of their village after being accused of affliction by malevolent energies. Far from the safe bosom of their fellows, the family’s susceptible to a horrifying litany of devilish tricks. As Matthew Crowley noted in his excellent essay earlier this summer, the hysteria over dark magics targeted “the strange and discomfiting figures on the nightmare margins of society.” Eggers’ film takes place a few decades before the clusterfuck in Salem that closed out the 17th century, but it does mirror the spirit of distrust that motivated both calamities. Seven summers spent as staff at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead and then another at the Salem Witch Museum ground one simple principle into this writer as a surly, insubordinate teen: The first ones to go when fingers started a-pointing were the fringe figures. It’s no coincidence that children swept up in their own twisted games singled out the creepy old ladies too infirm to attend the weekly church meetings. The harsh Puritan judgment that precipitated the kangaroo trials that got innocent townsfolk hanged has only changed forms over time, not eroded.
The Witch, then, illustrates the perils of withdrawing from the fold in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Seeking refuge within the crowd was the only way to ensure that the mob wouldn’t turn on an unfortunate soul, and in severing the family from their own, Eggers literalizes that fear. The film’s eponymous consort of Satan preys upon the children of the family when they’re beyond their parents’ watchful eyes. Just as the madness in Salem fell apart when the colony’s governor got involved following his wife’s accusation, the witch surrenders her tricks once the parents learn the true nature of their kids’ strange behaviors. Of course, things settled back to relative normalcy in Salem following the trials, whereas the witch of The Witch drops her front only to return in an all-out spectral assault, but that’s what makes it a horror movie. The larger point here is that since time immemorial, Massachusettsians have drawn strength from the simpatico figures in their own communities.
None of this, it bears mentioning, is intended as a drag on the Bay State. All three films display the deleterious effects of closing ranks in Massachusetts, but Spotlight in particular also shows the fortification this mindset can provide. When the truth did finally come out, the outpouring of support for the survivors with the bravery to tell their stories was as inspiring as the scandal was dispiriting. (My memories of the shockwaves rippling out from the article have not faded in the decade or so since it ran.) For better or worse, Massachusetts residents tend to take care of their own. Everyone else can go fuck right off, and we mean that in the nicest possible way.