Reviewed by James Owen
“The Town” is Ben Affleck’s first triple threat as writer (along with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard), director, and lead actor. It’s a wonder to see Affleck hone his skills as a filmmaker. The screenplay is sharp enough to finally dismiss those rumors that surely SOMEONE more talented than Affleck and Matt Damon wrote “Good Will Hunting.” As a director, Affleck creates a more thrilling film than his first feature, “Gone Baby Gone.” In that film, he nailed the look and tone of working-class Boston, but handcuffed himself to Dennis Lehane’s contrived and morally-questionable plot. Affleck directed his brother Casey, who apparently is busy creating half-baked performance art hoaxes. In “The Town,” as a leading actor, Affleck is as assured as he’s been since the pre-Bennifer days of headlining Kevin Smith films.
Rather than churn out a standard thriller genre movie, Affleck turns “The Town” into something more personal. “The Town”’s template is a boilerplate cops-and-robbers plot, but with a quiet romance at its center—and a quasi-autobiographical piece. Seriously. Let’s compare the character arc of protagonist Doug McRay to Ben Affleck.
Doug McRay: Doug was raised in a rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood. His skills as an athlete offer early promise. A combination of fate and self-defeat lead Doug back to the old neighborhood for a life as a bank robber, offering a chance to use his skills and brains for easy money in a high-risk “profession.” He becomes a success, though Doug must report to local crime boss Fergus ‘Fergie’ Colm (Pete Postlethwaite). For affection, he gets by with hooking up with his crew member James Couglin’s (Jeremy Renner’s) skanky sister (Blake Lively). The stress and strain of this horrible life begin to sink in, and our very capable Doug begins to yearn for a more substantive, safer life. He’s further motivated by a new relationship with nice girl Claire (Rebecca Hall), a bank manager who may or may not be a witness to one of Doug’s jobs. But, when dangerous people make a fortune off your work, going straight isn’t easy. Dark forces (his crew and his boss) do everything in their power to hold Doug back, tethering him to this life—and threatening to kill his relationship, or maybe even him. The tension of the third act is whether Doug can get away after his last hit and trot into the sunset.
Ben Affleck: Ben was raised in a nice Boston neighborhood that borders a rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood. His skills as an actor in films like “Good Will Hunting” and “Chasing Amy” offer early promise. A combination of fate and self-defeat lead Ben to Hollywood for a life of blockbusters, offering a chance to use his skills and brains for easy money in a high-risk “profession.” He becomes a success, though Ben must report to Bob and Harvey Weinstein and make movies like “Phantoms.” For affection, he gets by with skanky superstar Jennifer Lopez. The stress and strain of this horrible life begin to sink in, and our very capable Ben begins to yearn for a more substantive, safer life. He’s further motivated by a new relationship with nice girl Jennifer Garner, a less-famous actress who’d only witnessed Ben’s rehab years from afar. But, when dangerous people make a fortune off your work, going straight isn’t easy. Dark forces (Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer) do everything in their power to hold Doug back, tethering him in this life—and threatening to kill his relationship, or maybe even his career. The tension of the third act is whether Ben can get away after that proverbial “one last hit” and trot into the sunset.
With “The Town,” our hero shows that he may very well walk into the sunset with more gold statues. Perhaps I am cherry-picking my plot points, a genre movie like “The Town” shouldn’t feel so intimate and personal. In any film where the likable criminal wants “one last job” before turning straight, the likability of the criminal (and the performer) is of utmost importance. Plus, unlike Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Boston isn’t so much a backdrop as a supporting character. The expansive shots give us a view of its beauty and history; Affleck focuses on the grimy streets and the coarse inhabitants to give the film a lived-in feel. Any native of any city can tell you what makes it unique, but a talented filmmaker shows you the details that make the city come alive. The intimacy between characters and setting is how a film comes alive.
There’s much more to like about “The Town. “ Its action sequences evoke Michael Mann’s “Heat” in their accuracy: Affleck understands Mann’s obsession for details, about shooting in a wide scope and framing mundane places like grocery store parking lots and garbage strewn alleys like sweeping vistas or vast ponderosas. This is the work of a confidence director: A nice example is a gun battle that takes place behind a large wall. Instead of remaining on the gun fight, Affleck places him cameras on those reacting on the outside. A daring point-of-view—all reaction with no action—but he makes it work.
Affleck is also generous with his actors. Jon Hamm plays the antagonistic FBI agent not driven by some ill-defined back story, but because he has a bad-cop attitude and is good at his job. You don’t have to hate him not to like him very much. Jeremy Renner is dangerous, but with a streak of loyalty that makes his relationship with McRay believable—not unlike Jimmy Cagney in “Angels With Dirty Faces.” Hall and Lively make strong impressions amongst the testosterone. Hall isn’t much of a surprise (“Frost/Nixon,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona”), but Lively proves she may have life after Gossip Girl.
Whatever criticism Affleck has received is not without merit. But, as Doug McRay would point out, redemption is worth seeking and the potential rewards are great. Let’s just hope “The Town” is sure sign Affleck is on that track.