The Town (2010) ***
September 17, 2010
written by: Ben Affleck, Peter Craig & Aaron Stockard
produced by: Graham King & Basil Iwanyk
directed by: Ben Affleck
rated R (for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use)
U.S. release date: September 17, 2010
Following up his powerful 2007 directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone”, writer/director/actor Ben Affleck goes back to the place he knows best, adapting another novel set in Boston. This time he opts for writer Chuck Hogan (specifically his 2005 book, Prince of Thieves) over Dennis LeHane, and adds himself to the cast in this strong crime thriller. Like his previous film, Affleck excels at allowing room for haunted or damaged characters to naturally develop on-screen. At its heart, “The Town” is a potent human drama with some great character moments that is too-often interrupted by fast-paced, well-executed Hollywood heist action.
That’s not a bad thing at all since this is primarily about a group of bank and armored truck robbers from Charlestown, Mass, being pursued by the law. It’s just that the film is at its best in the scenes where two or three actors are either confronting or deflecting each other. Affleck surrounds himself with a perfect cast that are comfortable and believable in their roles, never over-acting or acting to type, applying restraint where needed.
Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is a second generation thief who has led a crew of neighborhood pals for years now. They get their jobs from the local mob boss in “The Town”, by Fergie the Florist (Pete Postlethwaite, finally getting a role he can grind his knuckles into), who used to hand off jobs to Doug’s now incarcerated father. Guess what kind of storefront Fergie runs in town? Let’s just say he has a scent for every occasion. Doug deals directly with Fergie, since he’s not a hot-head like his righthand man Jem (Jeremy Renner) and is a brighter bulb than the other two guys, Gloansy (hip-hop artist, MC Slaine) and Desmond (Owen Burke). There’s a feeling that these guys are tight and would do anything for each other, yet they also watch their backs around each other.
Not necessarily in a “I got your back” manner, if you know what I mean. It’s this palpable tension, on top of Doug’s preexisting scar tissue, that starts him thinking how there may be more to life than just the next heist. These thoughts increase and start to turn into actions when he meets Claire (Rebecca Hall, slightly underused), who could be good for him. But it’s the way in which they meet that serves as the catalyst for the film.
Claire was the bank manager at a job Doug and his crew held up, where things didn’t go quite so smoothly. The guys had their hooded skeletal masks in place, guns blazing, they knew exactly which safe to get into, as they feverishly threatened their way through the bank. But volatile Jem had to let loose on another manager and got paranoid enough to take Claire with them as a hostage, as they made their getaway. Did she see too much? Who cares? Better off playing it safe then have her pick you out in a line-up later.
Doug is bothered by this incident. They had never taken hostages before and now they find out this frightened woman lives around the corner. Doug feels guilt while Jem feels like she has to be dealt with. To prevent Jem from losing it again, Doug says he’ll keep tabs on her and of course since we know he was attracted to her even in the bank, we know where this is headed. But that’s okay, because we don’t know what will happen once Jem and the others find out that their possible witness is dating Doug, or what will happen once she finds out the truth.
Affleck creates undeniable suspense with these scenes which only increases as eternal forces weave their way into the lives of Doug, Claire and Jem. Those forces are the colorful other characters. Doug’s father, Stephen (Chris Cooper) casts a spectre of a shadow on the story which adds a telling perspective to his somber son. Jem’s sister, Krista (Blake Lively), also Doug’s ex, is more than just a strung-out symbol of the locals. Lively convincingly plays her as a desperate yet resilient character who refuses to be forgotten. Most prominently is Frawley (Jon Hamm), who leads the dogged F.B.I. hunt for these masked men. Hamm exudes confidence and charisma balanced with just the right frustration, quirk and humor. Fans of Lost will get a kick out of Frawley’s equally engaging partner.
Affleck is spot-on in his exciting heist scenes, noticeably influenced by Michael Mann’s “Heat”, but his smartest move is to let the actors around him carry the film. He knows that Renner’s powder keg portrayal is dynamite (literally), and does well to sit back and admire Renner’s talent. Renner shines best in one of my favorite scenes in “The Town”, where he wedges his way into a date Doug and Claire are on. Renner pays no attention to the growing tension he creates in the scene, he just works the moment as Jem adds an awkwardness and doubt to a relationship built on lies.
There are a couple other standout scenes where the actors dance with the dialogue, allowing the audience to admire actors cleverly working their craft. A scene where Doug visits his father in prison is both brief and powerful but absolutely needed, providing a heartbreaking history for Doug. The always dependable Cooper plays the role as strong and unapologetic against a vulnerable and hurt Affleck. In another scene, Frawley confronts Krista in a bar, knowing full well of her ties to the men he pursues. Hamm controls the scene we see Lively go from flirty to that of a child unable to get out of a lie. As much fun as it is to see Boston’s finest and the F.B.I chase chase these four thieves in their humorous nun masks, it’s the character-driven bits that make this film rise above the gritty crime conventions of the heist genre.
Audiences can be a fickle, ignorant lot, so I have to stop a moment to address the Affleck haters. While I understand that the guy has made some duds (I bet he does too), at least he has always poked fun at it all, maintaining a charm and serviceable presence in his movies. Those who groan when they hear of another Affleck movie, expecting to see yet another action film or a tepid rom-com, simply haven’t noticed how he has slowly reassessed his career. Having only directed two films, Affleck has definitely proven himself a worthy talent and, as Doug, his acting chops shouldn’t be disregarded either. So, save your hate for M. Night.
“Gone Baby Gone” had a more indie-thriller feel to it with a stronger sense of the Boston local color, where Affleck let his actors naturally come to life on-screen. Affleck is able to bring those strengths to “The Town”, a more mainstream and commercial film that has to provide the expected shoot-outs, explosions, and adrenalized chase scenes. Undeniably, the Fenway Park heist toward the end, is a breathtaking visual feat. The film is slightly uneven in its tone at times, stopping for winking humor and delivering a tacked-on contemplative Nicholas Sparks ending that feels forced. Regardless, that doesn’t take much away from the fact that Affleck and his fellow actors give us an emotionally and physically turbulent cinematic experience.