I’ve never entirely understood why, but Ben Affleck has always been a bit of a divisive figure. While I can certainly take issue with some of his role choices over the years, he’s always struck me on the balance as a talented performer, whose earnestness and commitment have often managed to elevate even the hammiest of roles (Armageddon?). He became a talent to watch out for behind the camera with his 2007 directorial debut (Gone Baby Gone), and with The Town, he has crafted a supremely ambitious followup.
The film, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves”, stars Affleck as Doug MacRay, a career criminal in the seedy Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. Claire (Rebecca Hall) is a bank manager who is briefly taken hostage by MacRay’s crew after they rob her bank. At the behest of his partner, Jem (Jeremy Renner), MacRay begins surveilling Claire, and they ultimately strike up a relationship (with Jem and Claire each none the wiser). Beyond this classic rom-com premise, Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm stars as FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley, who is charged with investigating the string of bank robberies.
We see a number of heist sequences in this film, and it is in these scenes that the direction absolutely shines. Each of them is slickly designed and executed, and cinematographer Robert Elswit (of many P.T. Anderson films) shoots them with a masterful sense of space and action. The editing (from Dylan Tichenor, another P.T.A. alum) also remains nice and taut even as the action ratchets up in the second half. The opening robbery sequence reminded me favorably of The Dark Knight, only a bit less cartoonish, with all the brutality intact – I cringed far more when the bank’s assistant manager was rifle-butted in the face (in a masochistic cameo by Victor Garber) than with any of the Joker’s bloodless shotgun blasts.
Much of this brutality is inflicted by Jem, and I must say, I found myself rather disappointed with his first several minutes of screen time. I had no beef with Renner’s performance, but the idea that his strong turn in last year’s The Hurt Locker would be followed up by playing that same unstable psychopath from a dozen other heist films (including Renner’s own character in S.W.A.T.) – was downright depressing. But I was wrong. This film puts an unmatched, revelatory spin on a familiar character – rather than relying on him as a firebrand to ratchet up the tension and advance the plot with poor judgment and random violence, Jem is a fully realized character with a believable backstory and connection with MacRay. In a number of splendid scenes, the dynamic between these two very nearly upstages Claire and MacRay’s romance as the film’s most fascinating relationship. It’s all the familiarity of a buddy comedy with an absolutely sinister twinge – a brutality and familial closeness that somehow feels right at home in the film’s [probably very fictitious] depiction of Boston. Affleck and Renner’s deft performances certainly back this up, but I must give credit to the screenwriting.
MacRay is plausibly depicted as a master criminal, and FBI S.A. Rawley (Hamm) is a mostly worthy adversary. When a crime drama endeavors to show both sides of an investigation, it’s always a pleasant surprise when they seem an equal match in intellect and skill. Hamm’s performance didn’t entirely work for me at the beginning of this film, but I gradually warmed to it – as the film went on, Hamm’s intensity is showcased in increasingly effective ways. In an interrogation scene, there’s a moment [also in the trailer] when he stares straight through MacRay and icily tells him he’s going to die in federal prison. The line was absolutely chilling in the trailer, but the surrounding scene had me fidgeting in my seat even more than I expected. Rawley is not a particularly well fleshed-out character, but Hamm’s performance serves him up as an effective nemesis.
While the police procedural aspect of this film was not too elaborate or detailed, it rang completely true for me. It reminded me favorably of HBO’s “The Wire” – a police drama in which the cops rely less on forensic techno-babble and more on the personal connections between criminals. Rawley and his agents know exactly who the bad guys are and what they’ve done; they just need a way to prove it. While a feature-length police procedural is a lot more limited in its complexity than five seasons of television, this film realistically sold its investigation, as well as the notion that a criminal is far more likely to fall prey to a personal connection than an errant hair follicle.
It is these personal connections in an environment of unforgiving criminality that the film effectively explores. Nearly every relationship, from the film’s central romance (featuring a capable performance by Hall) to the brotherhood and friendship amongst the gang feels carefully realized. While the other gang members (besides MacRay and Jem) are fairly one-note, there’s really only one character that rings false – and it is unfortunately attached to an impressive turn by Pete Postlethwaite. I swear, when the mobster known as “Fergie the Florist” first appeared on screen, I thought I’d sleepwalked into a Guy Ritchie film. Everything about this character – his appearance, accent, and demeanor – was completely jarring and more than a little cartoonish. He ultimately serves little purpose but to prod the plot along by adding an additional [unnecessary] threat to the third act. On the balance, it does more harm than good to MacRay as a character… Wouldn’t it be nice if just once, our hero goes along with one last job just because he wants to? At least the scenes with Postlethwaite aren’t a complete waste – his demeanor was effectively intimidating, and his backstory with MacRay is nearly worth the time spent on him.
While The Town doesn’t completely avoid feeling like a rehash of other works*, it is nonetheless a complex, thoughtful, and well-made heist drama. Like Affleck himself, it deserves to be judged on what it has brought to the table anew, and it does not disappoint.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
*Including a sequence which managed to quite jarringly rip off both The Shawshank Redemption and the musical score of Band of Brothers.