A film review by Craig J. Koban September 27, 2010

Rank:  #21

THE TOWN jjj
½ 

2010, R, 124 mins.

 

Doug MacRay: Ben Affleck / Claire Keesey: Rebecca Hall / Agent Frawley: Jon Hamm / Jem: Jeremy Renner / Krista: Blake Lively / Dino: Titus Welliver / Fergus: Pete Postlethwaite / Stephen MacRay: Chris Cooper

Directed by Ben Affleck / Written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan

All the naysayers can give it a rest about Ben Affleck, because with THE TOWN you can now consider his film career fully resuscitated. 

After a strong series of supporting performances (see HOLLYWOODLAND and STATE OF PLAY) followed by his critically lauded directorial debut in 2007’s masterful GONE BABY GONE (making my Ten Best list of that year), Affleck can now be regarded as a filmmaker with a singular voice and an efficient aesthetic with the release of THE TOWN, his sophomore effort behind the camera, in turn based on the Chuck Hogan novel PRINCE OF THIEVES.  The 38-year-old, Cambridge, Massachusetts-bred performer unequivocally proves now that GONE BABY GONE was no rookie fluke, as his second film fully confirms Affleck as noteworthy director to be reckoned with.   

What he does so resoundingly well in both of his films is create a level of stark immediacy and gritty verisimilitude with his environmental muse, Boston (or should I say “Bah-ston”).  Great writers write what they know, and great directors, I feel, film what they know, and Affleck lovingly pays the type of attention to detail for his hometown that has rarely been seen before in the movies.  Mixed in with his bravura handling of the Boston locales is the manner that Affleck captures the milieu of tough talking Irish crooks living within a larger microcosm of normal, everyday folk.  It’s that human dynamic that directors like Martin Scorsese – with his deeply texturized portrayals of criminal life in New York – do with an effortless swagger and innate comprehension, and Affleck displays much of the same care and understanding for his subject matter.  THE TOWN is framed by the clash between urban criminals, those on the side of the law that are after them, and the everyday innocent victims that are affected by both entities, and the way Affleck captures the cadence of this three-way relationship is enthralling. 

The film is, at its core, a pulpy crime/heist thriller mixed with a romantic melodrama and further mixed with a police procedural.  It ominously opens with title cards that indicate that one area of Boston, Charleston, has a notorious reputation for spawning multi-generational bank robbers and that this neighborhood is infamous for producing more bank and armored car robberies in one square mile than anywhere else in America (in actuality, the current 2010 FBI numbers for bank robberies in Massachusetts pales in comparison to California, but I digress).  Nonetheless, the film’s main character, Doug MacRay (Affleck) is from one such family with a dubious criminal reputation.  His father (Chris Cooper, serenely empowered in an all-too-brief cameo) is serving multiple life sentences for murder and robbery, and it appears that the apple has not fallen too far from the family tree.  Doug, whether instinctually or not, is just continuing the ol’ family trade of stealing money. 

He, like his father, is intrinsically good at robbing banks and, unlike his father, he has managed to elude the law at every turn.  His crew is made up of his best friends: There is Gloansy Magloan (Slaine), Desmond Elden (Owen Burke) and his closet BFF, James “Gem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner, following up his stellar work in THE HURT LOCKER with another portrayal that dives into manic ferocity and perverted inner drive).  Doug is the grounded voice of reason of the quartet and essentially is the planner, whereas Gem is hot headed, trigger happy, and a proverbial loose cannon that can snap with little advance provocation.  Gem has a reason for being twitchy and distrustful of nearly everyone around him: he has served nine years in the slammer for murder and definitely does not want to go back.   

It is Gem’s crazed level of self-preservation and disregard for human life in general that makes Doug feel uneasy, but he knows that Gem makes a worthy team member nonetheless.  However, Gem does make forbidden mistakes on team missions, which include elaborately constructed heist jobs that show the team meticulously disguising themselves and eroding all forms of DNA and print evidence from the scene (they often wet the scene with Bleach and detergents and later torch the getaway cars).  One mission, shown early in the film, is typified by costly errors: Gem, at one point, viciously beats a bank manager because he believed he tripped a silent alarm and, to make matters worse, he takes a hostage, Claire Keesey (the lovely Rebecca Hall), also a bank employee.  When Doug’s team is in the clear, they let her go, but beforehand they take her driver’s license and threaten her if she were to ever go to the Feds.   

Although Claire never actually sees the faces of the Doug’s crew, Gem is still deeply fidgety and suspicious that she will “squeal” to the coppers.  Doug decides to intervene to appease his friend’s worries and takes it upon himself to do some recognizance work and follows Claire.  The more he tracks her, though, the more drawn to her he becomes.  They have a very awkward meet-cute at a laundry mat and, from that point onward, they begin to see more and more of each other, at least until Doug gets enough information from her to feel confident that she will not be able to ever identify his crew.  There are two problems that befall Doug’s clandestine mission: he is falling in love with Claire and a steely-eyed and ferociously determined FBI agent named Adam Frawley (MAD MEN’s stalwart and ruggedly dependable John Hamm) is hot on his heels.  Frawley does not have enough evidence to convict, but through old school detective work and some ingenuity, he slowly begins to make a case. 

As stated, the one area where Affleck is most assured is the way he makes his Boston locales feel both atmospheric and resonate with a palpable level of coarse authenticity; he has a manner of building his settings to feel real and inhabited.  One area that Affleck really succeeds in is the way he is able to balance the film’s gripping human drama and fever-pitched action, which is a delicate dichotomy to pull off effectively.  What he is able to muster – that so many other “experienced” directors are incapable of – is to create visceral scenes of thrilling mayhem without sacrificing clarity and symmetry.  He is able to create the requisite sensation of tension and urgency to the action scenes in the film, but he is able to make them lean, economical, and precise: we can make out the action and are not bombarded with visual and editorial overkill, which is a welcome diversion.  Welcome, indeed.

Just consider the two heist sequences that bookend the film: the first being the opening robbery, which is revealed with an efficiency, economy, and a sense of exemplary pacing, and the second – a wonderfully executed heist at Boston’s baseball cathedral, Fenway Park, no less – is a kinetic and thrillingly captivating sequence that deserves worthy comparisons to the center piece gun battle of Michael Mann’s HEAT.  Some critics have complained about how action oriented THE TOWN is, but when moments like this are delineated and captured with such consummate skill and confidence as they are here, they emerge as agreeable additions. 

That is not to say that Affleck can’t handle the smaller scale, internalized moments between characters.  There is one particular scene – involving three characters at an outdoor bistro – that would have made Hitchcock proud.  Doug is enjoying an afternoon lunch with Claire until Gem shows up to crash it.  The tension here is threefold, and Affleck mercilessly plays it up for the audiences:  Firstly, Doug knows that Claire saw Gem’s rear-neck tattoo at the scene of the bank robbery and could use it to identify him, but Claire does not know that Doug and Gem are the robbers, so Doug tries to discretely find ways of ensuring that Claire does not see the tattoo.  Secondly, Gem knows that Doug is monitoring Claire, but is angered when he sees the two out on what appears to be a date.  Thirdly, the audience knows everything, which builds up the dread and anxiety even further.  You will not likely find a more quietly suspenseful scene set within modest settings in another film all year. 

Affleck, with GONE BABY GONE and now here, also shows what an adept he is as an actors-director, and the whole cast is unwaveringly stellar.  Affleck himself has never been so restrained and focused in a role and his interplay with Rebecca Hall (evoking a beautiful, conflicted, and wounded figure) is strong.  John Hamm is pitch perfect as the FBI agent willing to go to any length – ethical or not – to capture his prey (he is one of the great, understated performers; he acts by almost not acting or drawing attention to himself).  Pete Postlethwaite, playing a flouriest that happens to be the Godfather of Doug’s team’s robberies and has a dark past with Doug’s family, creates an unrelentingly creepy antagonist of reptilian hostility.  Perhaps most surprising is GOSSIP GIRL’s Blake Lively, who astonishingly creates a completely believable drug-addicted, love sick, and lonely single mother that Doug is trying to leave behind; she is never been so liberatingly and unnervingly raw. 

Special props, though, need to be given to Jeremy Renner, an actor with an almost unmatchable animal magnetism and  charisma.  Watching him inhabit his role as an Iraq War bomb diffuser in THE HURT LOCKER highlighted him as a performer with a untamed, almost hypnotic power, and he creates an even more tortured and dangerously unstable sociopath here as Gem.  Watching Renner here I seem oddly reminded of a young James Cagney in so far that both actors can tap into their roles’ goofball and dopey eyed charm and vindictively fast talking and short fused temperaments.  Renner is simply a knockout here and will certainly garner his second straight Oscar nomination. 

I read how one critic has compared Affleck to another actor-turned-director, Clint Eastwood.  Is that type of praise too hyperbolic at this early point in Affleck’s career?  I don’t think so, seeing as the comparisons are just: both have a directing style that’s elegantly sparse, simply designed, and modestly executed without feeling overdone; both are able to foster unvaryingly excellent performances from their actors; and both have a natural command of storytelling and pacing.  However, having said all of that, THE TOWN falls short of masterpiece status in a few ways: the film is a straightforward crime/police procedural that contains many clichés seen before (the innocent woman caught between her love of the criminal and her civic duty to turn him in and the “one last job before going clean” element of the crook) and the film’s conclusion – which ends with an unsatisfying thud – seems rushed, surprising considering the film’s robust 130 minute running time.  Finally, THE TOWN is simply not as fascinatingly challenging to viewers on a moral level as GONE BAY GONE, a film that contained unsettling themes and ethical quandaries that plagued me days after I saw it.  Yet, THE TOWN is still a triumphant rallying cry for Affleck, both the actor and director, who has long been searching to reclaim some well-deserved recognition from critics and peers alike.  Well, Benny, your first two films have garnered seven and a half out of a possible eight stars from me.   

Mission accomplished, sir.

  H O M E