Movie Review: The Town
By Matthew Huntley
September 29, 2010
The Town demonstrates how exemplary direction and a keen sense of storytelling can raise even the most ordinary material to new heights. We’ve all seen heist pictures before (they practically have their own genre), but it’s been a while since one has been this taut and riveting. This is director Ben Affleck’s second feature and he’s about as natural and confident behind the camera as they come. If he can make a genre picture this well, there’s no telling how far he could elevate something even more original.
Set in modern day Boston, a.k.a. “The bank robbery capital of America,” the film opens as a four-man team of experienced bank robbers are pulling off their latest job. They wear skeleton masks and force the bank’s manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), to unlock the safe. She’s able to trigger the silent alarm before being taken hostage and eventually let go.
The robbers are a band of tattoo-wearing thugs led by the level-headed Doug (Affleck). His second-in-command is the hot-headed James (Jeremy Renner), who, with his near buzz cut, thin goatee and gold necklace, is the kind of guy anyone would do their best to avoid because of his sheer ruthlessness. The character is obviously inspired by Joe Pesci’s Tommy Devito from Goodfellas - he’s trigger-happy and completely lacking in conscience. The others gang members are a couple of local punks (Owen Burke and Slaine) who grew up with Doug and James in the projects of Boston’s notorious Charlestown. They all report to Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite), a man with powerful connections who organizes the hits and takes a large cut of the earnings.
Since the heist plans never involve taking hostages, Doug is concerned that Claire could become a liability. Not only did she hear them talking at close range but she’s also a local Charlestown resident and she could potentially recognize them on the street, especially after seeing the fighting Irishman tattoo on the back of James’ neck, but so far she hasn’t revealed that to anyone, not even Detective Frawley (Jon Hamm), the FBI agent in charge of the case. Doug decides to keep an eye on her and, just as we anticipate, he starts to care for her, which creates a serious conflict of interest. For the sake of Claire and his future, he commits to one last bank job, but then he’s out for good.
All this makes the The Town sound relatively familiar, and in many ways it is. There have been countless heist thrillers that center on a smart, merciful criminal who wants out of the game because a woman has inspired him to go straight. And while The Town technically qualifies as a “regular” American crime drama, it often transcends that label because Affleck infuses it with the kind of details and tension most thrillers overlook. There’s a particularly somber moment when Doug sleeps with a local prostitute (Blake Lively), wakes up in the middle of the night to exercise, then makes his way to an alcoholics anonymous meeting. No words are spoken and we gain a clear sense of his character. He also shares a sad, uncompromising scene with his jaded, incarcerated father (Chris Cooper). The two don’t pretend to like each other as they reminisce about Doug’s long-lost mother.
As a film, The Town maintains a consistent rhythm and flow, with many moments of genuine suspense and intensity. One of these comes in the form of a virtuoso car chase that takes place in one of the city’s nooks and crannies. Affleck shoots and cuts from multiple perspectives, making it all the more difficult to know how it will turn out and who - the cops or the robbers - will walk away the victor, which is mostly unheard of for a car chase. Another way he utilizes his locations is by showing us a less sensational side of Boston. I’ll not reveal where the climax takes place, but Affleck chooses to shoot in areas we don’t often see. He goes underground, if you will, and gives us shots that document some of Boston’s working-class. By showing us the “real” stuff, the story feels more credible.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Town is inspired, as there are moments where Affleck makes some narrative compromises, especially with the characterizations. For instance, James is only seen as an extreme, grotesque figure, but I wish the screenplay had showed us a side to him that might have categorized him beyond just a heartless thug. The ending also feels tacked on and too “bookendish” for its own good. I had a hard time believing the whole thing about the ice rink and the last shot of one character looking off into the sunset. It’s poignant, sure, but also somewhat artificial and romantic compared to the grittiness of the rest of the film.
Despite its mild shortcomings, though, The Town is still a superb thriller with strong, rich performances and assured direction. It is also enormously entertaining and never stops moving. Many were suspicious that Affleck’s first critically-praised feature, Gone Baby Gone, was just a fluke, but he’s obviously the real deal - a certifiable filmmaker able and ready for grander, more complex projects. For now, he’s taken standard material off the shelf and turned it into something fresh and exciting. Oftentimes, this can be just as difficult as creating something from scratch.