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'Spotlight' Review: How Dare A Drama About Uncovering Sex Abuse Be This Fun And Charming!

By Kristy Puchko | Film | November 4, 2015 |

By Kristy Puchko | Film | November 4, 2015 |

It’s about damn time a true Oscar contender came to play.

So far this season we’ve seen a lot of would-be Oscar bait crash and burn. Black Mass was openly mocked for (among other things) Johnny Depp’s outlandish hair and makeup, ill-suited to a gritty biopic. Our Brand Is Crisis, Steve Jobs and Burnt all bombed at the box office. Bridge of Spies is thriving in theaters, but it’s a snooze. No movie yet—save for genre long-shots The Martian, Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road—has truly electrified critics until now.

Spotlight offers a thorough and thoughtful documenting of bone-chillingly grim, real events. Yet, you’d be surprised how much humanity and humor can be found in the uncovering of the world’s biggest sex scandal.

With a remarkable ensemble that boasts Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, and the ever-outstanding Stanley Tucci, Spotlight focuses on the team of Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of the Catholic Church’s long and horrifying history of covering up sex abuse allegations against their priests. I know. Heavy stuff. But trust me when I tell you like Room, Spotlight deftly weaves its disturbing story in a way that is powerful without tipping into overwhelming or soul-crushing.

Director Tom McCarthy has previously brought us such unforgettable dramas as The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win/Win. He’s a consummate craftsman of character, diligently carving out development to root us into their worlds and struggles. His and Josh Singer’s script slyly sets up 2001 Boston so completely, that it feels like we could wander off from our heroes and meet a whole city populated by complex and charismatic characters. But their script’s best virtue is its restraint.

McCarthy and Singer refuse to beat audiences over the head with the plot’s tragedy. The audience knows the rape of children is monstrous. We don’t need to see it. Children at play often enter the frame. Churches loom large like threats. But Spotlight doesn’t exploit its stories’ scandalous details with graphic content or repulsive flashbacks. It grants close-ups to victims of abuse, leaving an actor’s expression to convey layers of pain, shame, rage and regret.

One of the film’s most simple yet poignant shots is of a man who realizes his dinner mate knows the secret of his abuse. His confident countenance crumbles like a stone church torn down by a wrecking ball. And our heart aches for him, even without some sleazy flashback of abuse. But Spotlight is too smart to paint the Church as the sole villains in this piece. The script works in the shades of grey that are the complacency of ignoring such crimes. Looking the other way taints a whole city in sin, and its revelation forever changes its central team.

The performances in Spotlight are top-notch, from the leads all the way down to single-scene players who wallop you with a look, then leave you reeling. Keaton, McAdams, Ruffalo and James play the Spotlight investigation team. And each one is granted a lean yet compelling arc. McAdams is solid as a casual Catholic who’s faith is shattered. Vibrating with an unmitigated passion for the truth, Ruffalo is mesmerizing with rumpled charm, manic energy, and unrepentant tenacity. Though not as famous as his co-stars, James snags one of the film’s most satisfying callbacks, established when his devoted family man realizes a safe-house for rapists/priests is within spitting distance of his children’s bedrooms. And Keaton steers the ship, blisteringly peeling back layer after layer of his hard-nosed yet compassionate newsman, leading to a reveal that’s not exactly shocking, but is nonetheless impactful.

Amazingly, despite all of the discussions of abuse, tear-jerking tales, and bureaucratic buffoonery, Spotlight is funny. It’s McCarthy’s proprietary blend of observational wit, profound warmth, and riveting drama that makes Spotlight is brilliant. Hands down, it’s one of the best films of the year.

Kristy Puchko wants you to know Spotlight reminded her in all the best ways of The Paper. Remember The Paper? Keaton was great in that too.

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Kristy Puchko is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.