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By Tom Dever · February 2, 2018
Today, we honor the home of the AFC Champions and five-time Super Bowl winners, the New England Patriots. Unlike yesterday’s surprisingly scarce ranking of films set in Philadelphia, there is an embarrassingly high number set in Beantown. To put in perspective, we’ve had Spotlight, Ted and Ted 2, Patriot’s Day, Stronger, Black Mass and The Heat JUST IN THE LAST FIVE YEARS. That’s to say nothing of The Departed, The Verdict, The Town, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River or Good Will Hunting.
Undeniably, Boston has become less of a setting and more of a genre in the past fifteen years. It is the quintessential blue-collar backdrop for modern noir. Plus, it gives actors a chance to try their hand at the “Bah-ston” accent. And, to be fair, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Matt Damon’s endless stream of “fahk you”s in The Departed.
However, the Patriots don’t play in Boston. They play in Foxborough, MA, about thirty miles outside of the city and probably well over an hour in the notoriously-bad I-95 traffic. The Patriots aptly carry the banner for all of New England, so rather than your typical Boston Top 5, we present to you the Top 5 Films Set in New England but Not Boston.
Contemporary prestige television has made writing antiheroes a work of art. But as complex as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper are, Bill Murray’s Bob Wiley earns his keep alongside them. Tom Schulman’s incredible screenplay manipulates an audience into endlessly rooting for an obsessive paranoid hypochondriac who fakes his own suicide to crash the vacation and personal life of his psychiatrist, Richard Dreyfuss’s Leo Marvin. This involves humiliating Dr. Marvin on Good Morning America, subsequently ruining his family vacation, turning both of his kids against their father and dating his sister in the end. And, yet, you still pull for Bob the entire time. THAT is writing.
Initially set in New York, the characters retreat to Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. The serenity of the small New England lake town, as opposed to the sensory overload of New York City, affords Bob the environment he needs to address and overcome his issues.
So I’m stretching the boundaries of my own parameters here by saying Lowell, MA, at a mere 30 miles northwest of Boston is not part of Boston, but I wanted an excuse to gush about David O. Russell’s The Fighter. Most sports films fall into the trappings of using the contest on the field of play as their source of conflict, whereas the true classics, like Raging Bull and The Fighter, find more drama outside of the competition.
If you took away the boxing, you’d still have a family soap opera that would make Rousseau proud. The script pits Micky Ward, the erstwhile working class fighter, against his manipulative “momager,” Alice, and his self-destructive spotlight-stealing drug-addicted half-brother, Dicky. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale won Academy Awards for their performances as Alice and Dicky respectively.
While the performances will be remembered, not enough can be said about the fascinating, deep, complex and strong-willed characters on the page and how well they were brought to life by their modest surroundings in Lowell.
As impressive as the cast of characters in The Fighter is, few can hold a candle to the dysfunctional quartet in Mike Nichols Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Based on Edward Albee’s play of the same name, it tells the story of history professor George and his boozy wife, Martha, returning from a cocktail party at the home of the college president, Martha’s father, as they invite a young couple over for a nightcap. After the young couple arrives, the night evolves into a series of blow-up arguments and a stream of unearthed secrets.
Set in a small New England college town, Ernest Lehman’s adapted screenplay set his four actors up for success. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis were all nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, with Taylor and Dennis both winning. Seen as a groundbreaking film for its frequent use of profanity, the film was nominated for every single category it was eligible for at the Academy Awards, one of the only films ever to do so.
If you haven’t seen In the Bedroom since its release or somehow missed it altogether, you owe it to yourself to revisit. Based on the Andre Dubus’ story Killings and set in coastal Camden, Maine, In the Bedroom is a striking, patient, honest and well-crafted exploration of the effects of murder on a family.
Todd Field and Robert Festinger expanded a short story of roughly 10,000 words into a masterpiece of characterization. Doctor Matt Fowler and his wife, Ruth, are already at odds with their son Frank dating an older divorced woman, Natalie, with a violent ex-husband. When that ex murders Frank and the charges are dropped in the name of self-defense, the ripples of grief are amplified with each passing day. The film shies away from any sensationalism or clichéd portrayal of violence or retribution. Frank’s murder doesn’t even occur on screen. Instead, we see fully-developed characters struggle with both blame and guilt on the path to peace and, in Dr. Fowler’s case, the path to vengeance.
The original blockbuster. The film that put Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest director of all time, on the map. The template for modern action and horror films. What’s left to be said about Jaws that hasn’t already been said? Sure, Amity Island isn’t a real place, but it serves as the sleepy peaceful stand in for all New England beach towns unsuspectingly disrupted by the 25-foot long terror beneath the ocean surface.
You can call it good fortune or maybe fate, but the malfunctioning animatronic shark forced director Steven Spielberg and scribes Peter Benchley (based on his novel) and Carl Gottlieb to limit the action sequences and instead focus on the character dynamics of fish-out-of-water Chief Brody, arrogant oceanographer Matt Hooper and deranged shark-hunter Quint. As a result, you have three incredible personas with their own motivations for hunting and killing the shark.
Withholding a full visual of the shark until the third act created a palpable anticipation from the audience. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss gave unforgettable performances, and John Williams provided one of the most recognizable scores in film history. From one of the most documented troubled film productions of all time, we got an undisputed masterpiece and a contemporary Moby Dick. If nothing else, Jaws should serve as an inspiration for writers and filmmakers to roll with the punches and make the most of what you got. Who knows what you could get out of it.
Tomorrow, The Non-Sports Fan Movie Fan’s Guide to Super Bowl LII.
Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.