Director : Ben Affleck
Screenplay : Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard (based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Ben Affleck (Doug MacRay), Rebecca Hall (Claire Keesey), Jon Hamm (Adam Frawley), Jeremy Renner (James Coughlin), Blake Lively (Krista Coughlin), Slaine (Albert 'Gloansy' Magloan), Owen Burke (Desmond Elden), Titus Welliver (Dino Ciampa), Pete Postlethwaite (Fergus 'Fergie' Colm), Chris Cooper (Stephen MacRay), Dennis McLaughlin (Rusty), Corena Chase (Agent Quinlan), Brian Scannell (Henry), Kerri Dunbar (Henry's Girl), Tony V. (Vericom Crew Chief), Isaac Bordoy (Alex Colazzo)
Like his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone (2007), there is a lot riding on Ben Affleck’s crime drama The Town, or, more directly, on Affleck himself. Not only does he have to prove that Gone Baby Gone, one of the best films of that year, was not the cinematic equivalent of a one-hit wonder, but he also has to surmount the new challenge of directing himself, a potential pitfall he wisely avoided the first time around. Affleck was probably feeling more confident in his second outing behind the camera, and The Town reflects that confidence, even if it is still carefully insulated within certain familiarities, particularly the underlying “honor among thieves” thematic and the setting in Affleck’s native Boston. Yet, Affleck still takes a number of risks, which helps elevate The Town above its admittedly pulpy roots into something that is both harder and more moving.
The title of the The Town, which is based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan and adapted by Peter Craig, Affleck, and Aaron Stockard (who also worked on Gone Baby Gone, refers to Charlestown, a square-mile neighborhood in Boston that opening title cards inform us is responsible for producing more bank and armored truck robbers than any other place in the United States. Robbing is passed down from generation to generation like an old family recipe or an heirloom, which is precisely how Affleck’s Doug MacRay got involved in it. Having failed to make it in professional hockey due to his anger management issues, Doug has assumed the leadership of a four-man crew and successfully knocked off a number of banks in the Boston area.
The beginning of the film depicts one such heist, with Doug and his crew dressed in black hooded sweatshirts and skeletal masks that give the otherwise familiar nature of the job an impending sense of doom. To get out clean they must kidnap one of the managers, a trembling young woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall), who they later set free. When they discover that she lives in their neighborhood, there is contention within the group about whether or not she could lead the cops to them, so Doug decides to tail her and find out what she knows. This involves his getting to know her, and once he does he falls in love with her and begins a relationship that can only end badly because at some point he’s going to have to come clean about who he is and what he has done. This is even more troublesome given Claire’s sweet and somewhat naïve nature, which is precisely what draws Doug to her.
Unlike Gone Baby Gone, which worked its seething bed of barely repressed violence for maximum tension, The Town is a more action-oriented crime drama, which allows Affleck to stretch his directorial muscle and prove with even more certainty how well he has absorbed the grit and sweat of the ’70s-era thrillers he so obviously reveres. Near the middle of the film there is a botched armored truck heist that leads to a hectic police chase through the narrow streets and back alleys of Boston, and the film’s climax involves an attempt to rob the cash coming out of Fenway Park, both of which Affleck and cinematographer Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for 2007’s There Will Be Blood) stage and film with the kind of shaky, verite-style intensity that William Friedkin used so memorably in The French Connection (1971). Affleck makes it his own, though, tying the desperate nature of the action to the various characters’ desperations, both stated and otherwise. Once Doug becomes involved with Claire, he wants to leave bank robbing behind, but finds that he is trapped by Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), the stern, unforgiving local gang lord who orchestrates the heists from inside an otherwise innocuous flower shop. His desire to break free is also deeply resented by Jem (Jeremy Renner), his best friend and right-hand man who once went to jail for killing someone who was after Doug. The intensity of Jem’s loyalty is a fearsome thing primarily because, like everything else about him, it is constantly teetering on the edge of chaos. And at all times Doug is being tracked by an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who is almost psychotically intent on nailing him, whatever it takes.
As a test of Affleck’s mettle both in front of and behind the camera, The Town is a powerful success. It is not a better film than Gone Baby Gone, perhaps because there are elements of it that are a bit too familiar. Yet, Affleck proves that he has a deft touch with both style and substance, and that he is also an excellent director of actors, including himself. He gets particularly good mileage out of the strong, unsettling presence of Jeremy Renner, who takes the intense sense of commitment that made his character in The Hurt Locker (2009) so unforgettable and infuses it with equal parts meaty sadism and nothing-to-lose lunacy. The film also benefits significantly from the presence of Chris Cooper as Doug’s incarcerated father; although he is only on-screen for one scene, it is enough to demonstrate how Doug’s fate is virtually inevitable given his background, which gives the film, which could have otherwise been a surface-level cops-and-robbers yarn with a love triangle twist, an edge of Shakespearean tragedy.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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