I saw this movie with a friend of mine who grew up around the area where it takes place, and he declared it to be the “best Boston movie ever.” Now I’m not in a position to verify that as accurate since I haven’t been since I was six. But this coming from a guy who spent his childhood in the Boston area and having made hundreds of visits to Fenway Park, that’s high praise which cannot be ignored.
With “The Town,” an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves,” Ben Affleck proves what should have been clear to us after his directorial debut with “Gone Baby Gone”; he is truly an excellent director with a very in depth knowledge of Boston and the surrounding areas. Ben also succeeds in giving us one of his very best performances while surrounding himself with a strong cast of talented actors. It seems like everyone was out for Affleck’s blood not too long ago, but now he has the last laugh on the haters as his career continues to head into a very successful second act.
Ben stars as Doug MacRay who, with his lifelong group of friends, commits robberies on banks and armored cars. One such robbery has them kidnapping a beautiful bank manager named Claire whom they let go after successfully making their getaway. But after looking over her driver’s license, they realize that Claire lives only a block or two away from them. Fearful that she might recognize them, Doug volunteers to check her out to see if she knows anything. In the process, he falls madly in love with her, and she is quick to return his feelings. Now this could mean one of two things; crime truly makes you stupid, or love conquers all. This leads the team of robbers to get even more paranoid than they already are as they are about to go through with their last job, and we all know what happens on that “last job…”
While Boston plays a big part in all this, the setting of “The Town” is actually Charlestown, home of the Bunker Hill Monument which is featured prominently in the film. In the opening titles, it is said that Charlestown has more than 500 robberies in a year, and that it is known as a town that breeds a strong criminal element. It kind of makes it sounds like there are no other careers down there to consider, and if you’re not a thief, why not? Its like what Bono once sang about:
“If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.”
Now “The Town” is more than likely to earn a lot of comparison to Michael Mann’s “Heat” as they do share some similarities in their stories. But while “Heat” was truly an epic motion picture, “The Town” is far more intimate in its scope and characters. Much of the attention is paid to the criminals themselves than the police or FBI agents who are obsessively pursuing them. It surrounds you in an authentic Boston atmosphere (the accents I’m not so sure about) and makes you wonder if the characters who were born and raised there will ever be able to survive outside of it, let alone leave it without the threat of death hanging over their heads.
Seriously, it is not at all hyperbole to say that Affleck is a terrific director and a great screenwriter. Along with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, they take the most familiar elements of your average heist movie and reinvigorate them to create an exciting film that is as big on character as it is on action. Clearly, Affleck’s attention is more acutely focused on the characters and the circumstances that surround them all. As for the action, it has some of the best staged robbery sequences I’ve seen in any movie for some time, and there’s also a brilliantly staged car chase through the narrow streets which makes you wonder if the thieves can ever possibly escape as the police are not always the bumbling idiots they are portrayed as in many movies.
Then there is Affleck the actor, and a lot of my friends still can’t stand the guy. I’ve never really thought of him as a bad actor, but that may have to do with the fact that I never bothered to see “Gigli” or “Surviving Christmas.” Still, he’s shown a lot of growth in the last few years with great turns in “Hollywoodland” and “Extract” (he stole the show in that one). Here as Doug MacRay, he gives one of his best performances to date, and you totally believe him in the character he plays. I was thinking for awhile that his time as a romantic lead actor was all but burned out, but he can still pull it off as long as that smile of his doesn’t turn into some condescending-looking smirk.
Another big standout performance in “The Town” comes from Jeremy Renner, still on a roll after his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Hurt Locker.” As James “Jem” Coughlin, Renner portrays the most unstable and drug addicted member of the gang, and the most heedless one as well. Coughlin is like a coiled snake waiting to strike and it’s easy to see that he will be the masters of his own downfall, but Renner gives him a wounded soul as well. Having served nine years in prison rather than rat on his best friend Doug, James constantly feels like he is on the verge of being betrayed and feels (as Lars Ulrich would day) “so disrespected.” Other actors would just play up the hothead aspects of this character, but Jeremy gets at his heart and how his feelings end up dictating the actions he makes.
“Mad Men” star (and soon to be one of the perennial guest hosts of “Saturday Night Live”) Jon Hamm is also on board as Special Agent Adam Frawley. What looks to be one of your obsessive law enforcement characters in a heist movie on a mission to get the bad guys, Hamm actually subverts that to show us an FBI agent who proves to be just as ruthless as the criminals he is chasing. In certain scenes, he proves more than willing to ruin another character’s life if it means more evidence and an eventual capture of those evading the law. That Don Draper coolness rubs off on Adam as he almost effortlessly wiggles his way past another person’s defenses, and then dives right in for the kill.
The actresses cast here do remarkable work here, holding their own against a dominantly male cast. Rebecca Hall is Claire Keesey, the bank manager held hostage who later falls for one of the robbers without even knowing it. Rebecca has to balance out her own frazzled emotions in the aftermath of what she was put through, and she has to deal with her strong feelings for Doug that never really falter once she learns the truth. As for Blake Lively, I have never seen her on “Gossip Girl” (I’m not sure I fit into the show’s demographics), but her performance as drugged out single mother Krista is likely the polar opposite of that character she plays on the hit show. She excels as a woman still harboring feelings for Doug and yet is unable to keep pulling herself out of a painful downward spiral.
You also have resident character actors Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite doing the same solid acting work you can always count on them to do. Cooper actually has only one scene in the film as Doug’s dad, Stephen MacRay, but he creates a fully developed character whose troubled history is communicated more in facial expressions and actions than it is in words. Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, your typical mob boss, but his performance never feels anywhere as clichéd as you might expect the character to be. Even in a few scenes, his Fergie is a very scary character whose threats seem very real and who holds the answers to the unanswered questions Doug is always asking. Both of these guys are proof that there are no small roles, only small actors, and these guys are most definitely NOT small actors!
Looking at the plot of “The Town” as a whole, this is a movie that could have been average or would have told the same old tired story with nothing new or original to say about it. Well, the movie is certainly not original, but all the specific details put into use here seriously elevate it from the ordinary. The relationships and dialogue between each character never ever feels contrived or artificial, and the screenplay has great moments where characters realistically regain the trust of others without being at all manipulative:
“Ask me anything you want.”
“I won’t believe you.”
“Yes, you will.”
“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers.”
Going into “The Town,” I knew we were in for a good movie, but I should have known that we were about to watch a great one. Ben Affleck has earned his career resurgence, and his work as a director cannot be held in doubt after this and “Gone Baby Gone.” This movie could have been a spectacular failure in anyone else’s hands, but Affleck is a much smarter person than we ever give him credit for. Granted, it was hard to recognize that after “Gigli” (nobody looked good in that) or “Surviving Christmas” (definitely not getting a sequel), but Ben has learned from his mistakes, and it looks like he’s here to stay. What’s bad about that? Nothing.
**** out of ****