After turning his career 180 degrees with his expertly economic take on Dennis Lehane with Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck appears to be on a mission to claim the city of Boston as his cinematic turf. Just how Bostonian is his heist movie The Town? Its climax takes place at Fenway Park. Oh my Gahd.
Compared to its haunting predecessor, The Town aims lower. Rather than dig into the psychology of a missing child and the moral quandary presented by her neglectful, addicted mother, The Town contents itself to be a taut, B-movie thriller. And yet it is also denser than Gone Baby Gone, trying not only to work as a heist movie but a coming-of-age tale and a romance. Essentially, it mashes up clichés from three different kinds of movies into something that has no right to work but does, thanks to Affleck's economic direction and his sure-handed ability to get fine performances from his actors.
After using his previous film to promote his brother Casey's considerable talent, Affleck uses his latest to build off the acting comeback of Hollywoodland by playing Doug MacCray, a failed hockey player who returned in disgrace to the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, where, opening title cards tell us, the highest concentration of bank robbers in the world are born. With a father serving several life sentences for robbery and murder, Doug continues on the "family business," leading a crew of thuggish, arrogant townies whose appearances belie their intelligence and capabilities. When they rush into a bank at the start of the film, they establish a professional precision in no time. They know when the silent alarm goes out, when the safe's time lock opens, where the tracers and dye packs are placed in money, how to make sure no one does anything stupid (including collecting cell phones), and they bring bleach to get rid of any evidence they might leave behind. In a five-minute stretch that includes no prior discussions of planning or obligatory shots of blueprints -- though those do come later -- Affleck conveys just how experienced these four guys are with their work.
The heist goes off without a hitch even though someone trips the silent alarm, but the gang takes the manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage just in case. Having watched her co-worker beaten by one of the robbers, Claire is rattled, and even when she is released without harm she can barely stop shaking for days. When the gang discovers that the woman lives four blocks away from them, Doug tracks her down and winds up falling in love. It's just stupid and crazy enough to be brilliant, and as much as women in film are constantly set up to help a man grow up, Affleck avoids the trap of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
For one thing, Claire is too shaken up to actively bring Doug out of his own stew of self-pity, and we're basically watch a couple repair their relationship after a big shock rather than have them meet and be totally happy until the Big Misunderstanding. Doug helps Claire through the post-traumatic stress disorder that he helped give her, while she inspires him to really try to leave the game he never seems to enjoy, not nearly to the same extent as his best friend Jem (Jeremy Renner, unabashedly channeling Jimmy Cagney).
Jem pressures Doug about the relationship, and his fears are not unwarranted. Bearing down upon the gang is an FBI agent, Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), a man who's been on the force so long that he has no qualms with overstepping certain ethical boundaries to intimidate cooperation from the tight-knit Charlestown community. I know I just waded waist-deep into clichés, but there's no way to talk about The Town without bogging down in various things you've all heard before.
So let us instead talk about why it remains an enjoyable film. Renner builds off his Hurt Locker buzz brilliantly, even if he continues to play an arrogant, self-absorbed, dangerous man whose rash behavior threatens the cohesion and effectiveness of a group of thieves as much as it does a special Army unit. Jem sees Doug as a brother, and when the weary gang leader speaks of leaving this destructive lifestyle behind, Jim does not disguise his unwillingness to release his friend. Hamm, so memorable on Mad Men, offers a number of fine reasons for continued work on the big screen, from his chiseled look to his ability to maintain some semblance of decorum even as the fury begins to seep out of Frawley's eyes. Paired up in a surprisingly funny double act with Lost's Titus Welliver, Hamm fuses the broad comic talent he shows on his appearances on 30 Rock with the more severe side of his dramatic acting. He's often funny, but not in a way that necessarily makes you laugh.
Even the minor characters are perfectly case. Blake Lively plays Jem's sister and Doug's ex-girlfriend, and her Oxycontin-addled behavior adds a layer of tragedy to the film. Doug wants no part of her anymore, leaving her to raise her 19-month-old baby alone. From the moment you see her, you know she'll be the ones the cops coerce, and when they finally come knocking, all she can say is, "Why is it that I'm the one who's always getting used?" Chris Cooper has one scene as Doug's father but he makes it count; locked away in prison, this gray-haired, bespectacled man still talks of settling disputes with younger inmates and asserting control over the other gangs. Beneath his hardened exterior, however, is a sad, old man who will sit in a cage until he dies, all because of absurd notions of honor among thieves. Pete Postlethwaite, one of my favorite "that guys," also makes an appearance as "The Florist," the man at the top of the robberies who exerts brutal dominion over the various crews and knows just how to hurt them in order to keep them in the game as long as they're useful.
As for Affleck, he never oversells the point as he often did in the past. He has a few meaty chunks of dialogue that force him to put on his "acting face," but he hasn't seemed so natural since his heyday with films like Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting. Compare the way that he lets his facial language do the talking to the trailer of his next starring feature, The Company Men, which played before The Town. Granted, it's unfair to judge by a trailer, but that film offers glimpses of Affleck at his most ingratiating and "Robin Williams-esque," trying too hard to sell an obvious point. When he starts slipping into Serious Mode here, his style is in-keeping with the B-movie vibe, and he never gets ahead of himself.
His direction, however, is even better. His editing in the opening heist is fast but measured, a healthy blend of the frenetic, modern pacing and a more classical style. The Town boasts one of the better car chases in recent memory, bumping up against the Paul Greengrass style of incomprehensible shots of shrieking, crunching metal without jumping fully into shakycam waters. Some of Affleck's inter-cutting can seem awkward, but when he matches shots of Doug and Claire having sex with Claire being released by Doug and the gang at the beginning, the obtuseness of comparing her orgasm to the euphoria of finding out that she would not be harmed after all becomes somewhat beautiful.
A Michael Mann film this is not, despite the clear influence that director exerts over the picture, yet Affleck still has an eye for detail. One of the most suspenseful moments of the film involves Jem stumbling across Doug and Claire and trying to mask his surprise. Meanwhile, Doug, who knows that Claire might recognize the tattoo on the back on Jem's neck and alert the cops, attempts to keep the tattoo out of sight. Similarly, the blood on Claire's shirt, splattered on her when Jem beat her co-worker, triggers memories in the audience as well as her, and it's a shame that Affleck felt he needed to then insert some shots of the robbery to remind us.
Unfortunately, Affleck wants The Town to be too many B-movies, so it occasionally meanders when it leaves behind the romance and the thrills for a more preposterous coming-of-age/midlife crisis story. When the elements click, however, it's a damn fine film. Most of the dialogue is to-the-point and carries the kind of wit that normally comes from someone older and more familiar with the subject matter: as Welliver and Hamm brief other officers about the gang, they note the limitations placed on them by due process but also of the ways that those laws have been bent. "We'll never get 24-hour surveillance unless one of these idiots converts to Islam," says Dino.
That unforced humor, mixed with the thrilling heist and chase scenes and the fitfully endearing romance, makes The Town uneven but rewarding, a film that embodies countless tropes and modes but manages to funnel them into something enjoyable. It's also a B-movie that doesn't rely on irony, which is a nice change of pace from even the more entertaining movies like Machete. It's earnest and eager, maybe too eager, and if it's a step-down from the triumph of Gone Baby Gone, it's also proof that the previous film wasn't a fluke and that Ben Affleck could well find a way to fuse his mainstream appeal with his desire to make genuine art.