Running time: 130 min. Rating: Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use. Directed by: Ben Affleck Written by: Ben Affleck & Peter Craig & Aaron Stockard.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper, Blake Lively
Ben Affleck’s The Town is one of the most aptly titled films I’ve seen awhile. Taking place in Charlestown, a burb of Boston known for birthing generations of career criminals, the film puts its environment front and center, making the city itself the grandest character on display. It also happens that the eldest Affleck has done a bit more than that too; he’s essentially made one of the finest neo noirs of recent memory. It walks and talks like a film of the present day, but it grabs the thematic and stylistic conventions of the genre and dumps them down to splendid effect in a working class neighborhood full of bank robbers. Ladies and gentleman, the fall movie season is finally upon us, and this one is a great place to start.
The Town opens with a bank heist, led by Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) a wily blue collar thief who has teamed with good friend and mad-dog, Jim Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) to bring in the haul. There are a couple other guys in their team, but these two are the headliners—the brains and the teeth—and although Doug’s plan has few cracks, Jim’s hot-headed aggressiveness breaks the gig to pieces, resulting in a severely busted assistant-manager and a kidnapped bank teller. They get away with the cash, burn the getaway vehicle and deposit the girl, Claire, on the street blindfolded. Now, FBI agent Adam Fawley (Jon Hamm), is on their tail, and like golden age G-men, he’s not going to drop the scent anytime soon. Jim’s worried that Claire’s close proximity (turns out she lives nearby) will compromise them, and so Doug meets her to verify she’s harmless to their livelihood. Of course, she’s got no clue, but by this time, Doug is growing tired of the ‘life’ and the warmth and vulnerability of Claire are like bait on the hook.
Those are the primary pieces that make-up The Town, and fans of 40’s noir crime thrillers will well recognize those character types. There are few more added in too, including Jim’s trashy sister (Blake Lively) as the gun moll, and Pete Postlethwaite as Fergie, the ‘boss’ who hides under the guise of a frail, unassuming florist. All of them are, down to the tick, leftovers of an older tradition, but you won’t be thinking about that while watching the movie. This is because Ben Affleck is a terrific director of actors; he knows what he wants to draw from his cast, and he leaves enough extra room for inspiration. He may be playing the lead role of Doug, which he handles with an earthy weariness, but he gives the juiciest bits of the pic to his co-stars. Hall and Renner are particularly great as the two people closest to Doug, each pitted at opposite ends of his desire, representing a clear and simple choice with not so simple consequences. Renner makes Jim a creature both familiar and strangely intriguing; he’s a wild animal but he’s marching to a code of values that sometimes speak stronger that Doug’s cavalier selfishness. Hall is simply spellbinding as a good woman who is finding new strength in a relationship that isn’t what it seems to be. Her eyes and her mannerisms hold secret caverns of gentle power, and they do their work on Doug and the audience.
Capturing most of them in tight close-ups, seated at open-air cafes, or in cramped interrogation rooms, Affleck hones in on the humanity and frailty of his characters and the structure sets the performers up to drive these cracks in the architecture home. The finest acting showcase in the film is given to Postlethwaite, who has a powerful scene in the flower-shop where he reveals a menacing, snarling wolf inside of a man clipping tulips. In only a few moments his Fergie becomes the kind of fearsome entity that Nicholson’s Departed character only dreamed of being. It’s direct and concise work and it rattles the whole film, sending emotional vibrations in every direction. Even Nolan seemed unsure how to use Postlethwaite in Inception, but here Affleck sets him up as the secret weapon in The Town’s acting arsenal. Also poignant and effective in a shorter role is Chris Cooper as Doug’s dad, his mannerisms speaking decades of pain in mere moments.
Then, there’s Boston itself, quite nearly the scene stealer if it weren’t for the fact that it’s also the stage dressing for this tale of moral snarls and surrogate family values. I’ve seen the city portrayed many times in film, but here, it comes alive in aching, vibrant tones that replicate the feel of actually walking the cobblestones or ambling through Fenway Park. There are several bird’s eye shots of the city, ominously hovering over monuments and landmarks and then the camera will infiltrate the ground level and wedge itself in the midst of backyard barbecues, gorgeous gardens nestled among ghettos, and the derelict interior of a run-down skate rink. When Doug and company plan their elaborate heists and then execute them, the audience gets the benefit of feeling like they understand the layout of Charleston well enough to plan with them.
Although The Town is strong as a drama, it’s also a story that’s been told many times before. These thieves might act like kings, but unlike Mann’s Public Enemies, there’s surgicial dissection that subtly shows the self-absorption and selfishness that permeates nearly everything Doug and Jim do. Small quirks are built into the corners of the frame, whether it be the grotesque, oddly expressive nun masks that the gang wear in the second half or a final, sad gesture where a doomed thief glances at his gun and his soft drink and then goes for the cola.
For all of that, what really shines about the film isn’t any of it; instead, it’s the fastidious, near-obsessive detail that has gone into devising and executing the heists themselves. If there’s a good reason to bring this antiquated set of elements into the modern era its that the technical prowess of current filmmaking lets us as viewers walk, step by step, through the twists and turns of a well-oiled plan. When the plans go wrong, as they often do in this kind of story, Affleck gives us some exciting and expressive action sequences. The car chase is of special note, because not only is it harrowing, but its geographically coherent; you can follow the grid-like movements of both the police and the getaway car and telegraph where the trouble will come.
The weakness of The Town is one somewhat inherent to its genre; it isn’t quite so sure where or how to end. Many of the original films from which it draws its inspiration were willing to chase their darkness, and their moral convictions, right down to the very end. With The Town, there’s a final concession made to draw back and deliver something a bit more palatable, and dramatically less interesting. We want our cake and to eat it too, and while it’s ok for the movie to make us desire those things, the follow-through isn’t as satisfying as if it had sprung more organically from the story. These are mild complaints that keep the movie from being a classic, but don’t really impede its status as a great film.
Ben Affleck is currently two for two as a director, and this work threatens to break him out fully into the big time. He’s as good as many of his contemporaries and I look forward to his evolution as a filmmaker. At this rate, Scorsese and Mann can expect some stiff competition.