The Town

For Affleck, some habits die hard.

No, the world has not gone mad; Ben Affleck – yes, the same Affleck who co-starred with his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez in the colossal critical and financial bomb Gigliis fast earning comparisons with Clint Eastwood as far as his transformative venture from acting to directing goes. Affleck, with one corker firmly under his belt in 2007’s magnificent Gone Baby Gone, is more confident and assured in an altogether more genre-friendly outing, yet his achievement in direction here – touted by some, perhaps over-zealously, as Academy-grade – renders the film’s familiarity fairly unimportant. Here’s what is; The Town is one of the best-executed and most entertaining films of the year. 

In Affleck’s searing crime drama, the town of Charleston, Massachusetts, is like a character in itself. Inexplicably, it breeds the type of environment in which 300 attempted bank robberies occur each year. Our protagonists are just such a group; led by Doug MacRay (Affleck), the line-up includes hotheaded James “Jem” Coughlin (The Hurt Locker‘s breakout star, Jeremy Renner), and two other, less-developed cronies, Gloanzy and Dez, who are essentially bullet fodder. Things get interesting once they rob a bank, and realise that the branch manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), might have seen their faces. To stave off Jem’s violent solution to the problem, Doug tries to cool it off himself, only to, of course, wind up falling for her, while she remains unaware of his involvement. 

From the opening heist scene, this is a blistering example of a director in absolute control of his production. Avoiding the tendency to adopt fierce use of the divisive “shaky cam” to heighten the “realism”, Affleck’s coverage is extensive and dynamic, focusing on seemingly minor moments – such as when the thieves put the bank’s surveillance system’s hard drives in a microwave – which remind us that despite their thuggish appearance, these guys aren’t slouches. There is a heart-racing brutality to the action, aided by the dedicated performances, and it all mixes extremely well with the film’s romantic side, which, surprisingly, also fits like a glove. From the interesting use of vernacular – labelling Hall’s character, who lives in Charlestown as a product of gentrification, a “tunie” – to the stellar mix of tension and humour, and the ear-ringingly loud gunfire, this is one thriller that keeps you guessing while avoiding clichés, and it has a strong heart at its core to boot. 

Thematically, the schematic of the heist film may not be uprooted here, but in unique character observations and psychology, Affleck finds a new way to tell an old story. Outside of their group, the  thieves are depicted as empty vessels, fleeing from any sign of warmth, Affleck most of all, refusing to acknowledge that a child of a former lover, Krista (Blake Lively), might be his. Curious it is, though, that Claire is the wake-up call Doug needs; as is rare for the genre, the bank robber gets to see the psychological harm caused by his actions – the nervousness, the little ticks, the distrust – and is brought crashing back to humanity as a result. He cannot help but befriend her, and for this reason, the seemingly contrived love story works fairly well even if it is still the film’s weakest link. It goes without saying that Doug is a fool for getting romantically involved with the victim of one of his crimes, but we know that what he feels follows a lengthy period of cold insularity, begot through years of reinforced violence and anti-social behaviour. Fortunately, Affleck as a director is smart enough to recognise the potential lunacy of the romance plot, and he plies it with a few perverse laughs along the way. 

Uniformly, more than the superlative direction, the film works because of those in front of the camera. Affleck is solid as the lead, achieving that rare balance of believability as both a gruff thief and an impassioned heartthrob type, thanks to quite the workout regime, and solid chemistry with Hall respectively. Also enticing are a few notable cameos; Pete Postlethwaite plays the tough guy for the first time in a while, as a crime boss fronting as a florist, while Chris Cooper, as Doug’s dad, chews through his single scene with the necessary grit. All are outdone, however, by the film’s two showiest and most entertaining roles; Renner as Jem, and Mad Men‘s John Hamm as the doggedly determined FBI Agent Adam Frawley. Renner qualifies the role of Jem past the token hyper-aggressive nut, making for his most explosively expressive role to date (perhaps in that regard having more in common with his turn in S.W.A.T. than The Hurt Locker), while Hamm proves himself a startling physical presence – for one scene in which he tackles a perp is exhilarating – and he plays the part of the smouldering, dedicated cop perfectly.  

Typically, rigidly genre-set films such as The Town fail to reach far beyond the confines of their classification, but as proof that outstanding direction and layered performances can take a film far, this is an immensely entertaining effort that juggles several dramatic balls at once without faltering. Affleck furthers himself as a talent to watch behind the camera, and has found in his storied cast a fantastic roster with which to rip through familiar crime elements with bold gusto, earning valid comparisons to Michael Mann’s Heat in the process.


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