Monday, January 17, 2011
Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper
Running Time: 125 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★)
There are two ways of assessing Ben Affleck's The Town. First, as a gripping heist thriller and slice-of-life character study that impressively rises above the usual conventions of its genre with top-notch performances and tension-filled action sequences. Less favorably, it could be viewed as a successor of sorts to Affleck's previous directorial outing, Gone Baby Gone, giving you a momentary high as it retraces similar steps in a story at risk of being forgotten 15 minutes after it ends. Both of those interpretations would be correct, which isn't such a bad thing when you consider how difficult it is to effectively execute this kind of film. That Affleck has brought this script to life so vividly makes it a little disappointing that he's treading such familiar territory, but he does his best to make it seem fresh and worthwhile. In borrowing elements from the likes of The Godfather, Heat, The Dark Knight and The Departed this is a case where the parts are greater than their sum but many of those parts are impressive. The most interesting of which are the performances, which give us an opportunity to see what some previously untested actors are capable of in the setting of a mainstream crime thriller. And whatever anyone says about Affleck as filmmaker, you can't claim he doesn't know how to stage an exciting shoot-out.
Affleck plays Doug McCray, a member of a bank-robbing family in the Charlestown borough of Boston, whose team consists of four-life long buddies, the most unpredictable of which is Jem (Jeremy Renner), a wild hothead prone to sudden outbursts of violence. Usually meticulous in covering all their tracks when the crew hit a Cambridge bank things don't go exactly as planned when Jem's sloppiness forces them to take bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage. They let her go unharmed, but with a cryptic warning not to talk to the Feds. After discovering she lives in the neighborhood, Doug manufactures an accidental meeting at the laundromat, during which he realizes he might actually be attracted to her and have feelings that go beyond simply containing a witness. She comes to represent the normal life he couldn't have and his desire to escape a legacy of crime passed down from his incarcerated father (Chris Cooper), and that's being overseen by aging local crime boss Fergie (Pete Postelthwaite). But with determined FBI special agent Adam Frawley (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) closing in quickly and intent on using Claire to get his convictions, his days might be numbered.
The movie is pure crime formula with the "Just When I Thought I was Out...They Pull Me Back In" dynamic at its center and the relationship with Claire and Doug powering the emotional engine of the story. Will she discover the truth? If she does, will she protect him? Will she turn him in? Can he change? Of course we know the answers to all of these questions and the scenario stretches credibility in numerous ways, but what lifts the material above that are the characterizations and performances, with Jeremy Renner leading the pack. Affleck is more than suitable in a lead part that plays to his strengths so it's a credit to how much support he gets that's he's upstaged by nearly everyone else. Based on descriptions you could be fooled into thinking Renner's role isn't a huge departure from the similarly unlikable, quick-tempered soldier he portrayed in his Oscar nominated performance in The Hurt Locker, but he makes it different. Considerably heavier and sporting a convincing Boston accent he makes Jem this remorseless thug with bulldog-like tenacity who kills and bullies not necessarily for fun, but because he's been doing it his whole life and seems to know literally nothing else. He's scariest in the final act when you look in his eyes and see he hasn't a clue he's taken an insane plan with no chance of working this far, stupidly marching way past the finish line out of sheer will and determination. Renner subtly suggests an underlying loyalty to Jem that's almost admirable, eliciting sympathy for a character too stubbornly blind to reality to realize the destruction he's causing. The Hurt Locker wasn't a fluke. He can act, owning a supporting role that shouldn't have amounted to nearly as much as it does.
An actress who deserves to be a bigger name, Rebecca Hall, is equally impressive in her most visible role yet, charting in the quietest, non-showiest way possible Claire's transition from nervous wreck to someone who has to seriously grapple with her feelings for this career crook. She's so invisibly good, in certain scenes conveying what seems like all seven stages of grief on her face without saying a word, it wouldn't surprise me if some walk away fooled into thinking she didn't do anything at all when in fact she does everything. Partially responsible for that could be the unrecognizable Blake Lively, who in the shock of all shocks acts her brains out as Jem's strung-out sister Krista, whose baby Doug could be the father of. Unlike Hall, it's a necessarily underwritten role but she fills in all the blanks of this character's history, giving us huge glimpses into what she could have been about in just a couple of piercing scenes. Both heartbreaking and repulsive, she's leagues removed from her lightweight TV persona and it's unlikely anyone guessed she had a performance like this in her. The film also marks one of the final appearances for the late Pete Postelthwaite and has a single scene that's absolutely terrifying because of how unusually low-key he plays it, an approach exemplifying why he was one of our most respected character actors.
The crime procedural portion of the film is ordinary with Hamm's character and a local sell-out cop (played by Lost's Titus Welliver) seemingly clueless and without any leads one second, then on a furious manhunt the next. While you'd figure a big screen teaming of Don Draper and The Man In Black would yield better returns and both are underused to an extent (Welliver moreso), there is a fresh spin to Hamm's special agent in that he's a complete jerk who's impossible to root for. As unlikable as Doug and his crew are, he's a lot worse, manipulating witnesses and using childish bullying tactics to get his way. Whenever he doesn't get his way he looks like he's halfway to a nervous breakdown or ready to cry and throw a fit. Hamm plays Frawley so remorselessly that he makes you want to side with the crooks and injects much needed energy into the film as it spirals toward its Fenway Park finale. That's the best aspect of the script, the ambiguity between good and bad, where the characters actions are colored in shades of gray. The cops don't wear the white hats and the criminals don't wear the black. As much as every development follows strict conventions of the crime genre, it deviates here and the movie's better for it. Pacing is also a strength as it's the rare crime thriller that seems to gain momentum as it heads into the latter stages and the two big action sequences that bookend the film impress because they're filmed in such a way that you can actually tell what's happening. We know the result, but because these scenes are so relentlessly suspenseful Affleck has us doubting their outcomes at times, or at least more interested in seeing how he'll arrive there.
I get that Ben Affleck wants to make projects he's passionate about and this is the stuff he knows and the area he grew up in, but despite conveying a great feel for the Boston setting and its characters, the film does seem strangely impersonal in a way because of the familiarity of the material (which is adapted from Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves but may as well be based on any crime novel). He brings the scenario to life on screen as well as possible (if not better) and does a good job making you feel as if you're watching something more significant than what's actually present. Everyone can agree by now that Affleck has more than completely made amends for some of his questionable career decisions since graduating to the "A-List" earlier in the decade and has clearly dedicated himself to doing creatively fulfilling work both in front and behind the camera. Now I'd just like to see him tackle some different, fresher material. Even aside from the performances, it's easy to see why The Town gotten the praise it has because anyone who's a huge fan of the crime genre will love it and those who aren't will have very little to complain about.