Two dark visions of Boston flickered across the screen at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday.
“Spotlight,” a look at the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic abuse in the Catholic Church, cemented its status among Best Picture contenders at next year’s Oscars, while “Black Mass,” the story of the FBI’s entangled relationship with crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, proved more divisive. Praise for Johnny Depp’s work at the serpentine Bulger was nearly universal, with some calling it the best performance of his career, but reaction to the picture’s stately pacing was more mixed.
Both films portray Boston as a clannish enclave, sustained by secrets and tortured loyalties, and informally governed by religious guilt and street violence. They seem destined to rank alongside “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Verdict” and “Mystic River” in cinematic portrayals of “the City on a Hill.”
And both pictures also represent substantial box office risks. At a time when studios have become fixated on unambiguous superhero fantasies, these are two films that challenge and provoke. If adult audiences embrace them, it will be because of awards heat and strong reviews.
“Spotlight,” which premiered first, seems well positioned in that regard. Its biggest challenge may be figuring out which of its sterling supporting cast — an outstanding group that includes Michael Keaton (as Globe reporter Walter “Robby” Robinson who leads the team of investigative reporters, known as Spotlight), Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber — stand the best chance of landing acting nominations. The film may also face blowback from the Catholic Church, which has been trying to rehabilitate its image after years of punishing headlines and lawsuits related to sexual abuse of children by priests.
After the screening ended, director Tom McCarthy (who spent two months in Boston doing research for the film) brought back the cast and invited the real-life reporters and editors — Marty Baron, Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes, Matt Carroll and Robinson — to join them onstage.
“This has been a wild day for us,” said Pfeiffer, who is played by McAdams in the film. “Rachel wanted to know everything. I found out today in an interview that sometimes when we were together, she dropped behind me to capture my gait. They wanted to get us exactly right.”
Ruffalo then offered his thanks to the reporters, who came to the set, for their bravery in telling a difficult story.
“To do what you did, and to open yourselves, took so much courage, because you lifted the hood off a machine,” Ruffalo said. “It wasn’t always pretty. You told the truth about yourselves to us. Because of it, it’s incredibly powerful. We’re just actors; this is your life. You changed the world in a way. Journalism is a big part of what democracy is.”
Though “Black Mass” has drawn comparisons to the work of Sidney Lumet for its spare look at cops and criminals, director Scott Cooper said he consciously avoided trying to mimic the look and feel of earlier gangster pictures. Instead he was interested in telling “a humanistic story.”
That approach was echoed by Depp, who said he chose not to see his character as a villain. “For me, when we first sort of started taking this thing apart, the idea of approaching it as a genre film or a gangster film or something of that degree was really out of the question,” Depp said. “The idea was to approach it as a human story. And no matter who is being good or bad, no one wakes up in the morning and shaves and brushes their teeth and says, ‘I am evil.’ This is a guy that grew up as a Catholic school kid, very much in touch with his Irish heritage and loyalties.”
“Black Mass” will face its hometown crowd on Tuesday night when it debuts in Boston.