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“The Town” captures spirit of Boston but overdoes action

Affleck (left) and Renner make for a formidable team of thieves in "The Town."

There’s a strange air of historical reverence and foreboding about Boston that’s singular. Don’t expect anyone to mistake it for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles; Boston exists in a class all its own. And it takes a mighty talent to tease out that energy and make it seem genial enough to draw us in, make us comfortable and ominous and tense enough to keep us breathless. Ben Affleck — the star of “Reindeer Games” and, Lord help us, “Gigli” — is precisely the man for the job. Who knew?

Looking back, the signs were there. In his acting career, Affleck has excelled at playing conflicted souls: Gavin in “Changing Lanes,” George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” The parts that required him to show up and look dashing were largely forgettable. Turning a director’s camera on the streets of Boston, his hometown, then, seems like a logical step. He proved in “Gone Baby Gone” that it was a brilliant one, too. While “The Town,” with its amazingly filmed car chases, doesn’t soar quite as high as “Gone Baby Gone,” it comes damn close, this time with Affleck tackling the confused protagonist, Doug MacRay.

MacRay is a product of Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood pegged as a breeding ground for bank robbers. In Charlestown, bank robbery isn’t so much a crime as a learned trade. Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), now doing hard time for a job that went sour, served as walking, talking how-to guide. Doug hammered out the finer points with best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) at his side. Now Doug’s the cool head behind a successful bank robbery ring. Success starts to come at a price as Jem, a wild card with a volcanic temper and no scruples, becomes increasingly unpredictable. He’s the reason MacRay’s team takes its first hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) — a mistake that proves doubly dangerous when they find out she lives just a few blocks from her office. Jem’s eerily content to “take care of her,” but MacRay takes a kinder approach: He chats her up at a laundromat, strikes up a friendship with her and ends up liking her. Affleck displays a blessedly careful touch on the romance angle, letting Claire and Doug’s relationship develop at a slow, unforced pace. Their bond feels delicate but real, and it gives Doug the push he needs to consider leaving Charlestown.

Skipping out, however, won’t be easy. There’s FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm sporting a half-hearted Boston brogue), whose team encircles the bank robbers like hungry foxes closing in on a rabbit’s den. Renner’s splendidly unnerving Jem abides his own bizarre moral code and expects Doug to fall in line as well. Charlestown crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, the only actor capable of making a florist seem menacing) isn’t keen on Doug skipping out the job, either. The walls are closing in on all sides for Doug, trapped by both his past and his present, and yet Affleck smartly holds back when he could have gone for weepy drama. One thing he doesn’t dial down is the violence. As much as there was in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” has more — so much and so showy that it detracts from the more human storyline of Doug struggling with his loyalty to Charlestown and his desire to leave it in his rearview. The final act of “The Town” involves too many bloody showdowns to count, but there is a marvelous car chase filmed in such a ground-level way that it’s terrifying and captures the claustrophobic feel of Boston’s narrow streets.

Another strong point of “The Town” is Affleck’s ability to write characters that can’t be pigeonholed. Everyone exists in the gray areas. Renner, in an electrifying performance, plays Jem as unpredictable, scary and volatile, but he feels a brotherly protectiveness for Doug. Hamm’s hard-nosed cop has a moral flexibility that lets him to steamroll people to get what he wants. Claire’s anger toward Doug and her affection for him have her in an agonizing stalemate. The moral grayness gets drowned out by the gunfire and it’s underused, but it’s there and it’s powerful. How do you draw the line between “right” and “wrong” when loyalty is involved? Does that line even exist? “The Town” doesn’t answer, but what matters is that Affleck cares enough to pose the question.

Grade: B+

5 Responses

  1. Hey, you’re back! Excellent. Good review. I want to see this movie, but I don’t even think it is playing in this country right now 😦
    Still, good to read new words from you, and I eagerly await your next post, even if that pesky thing called life delays it for a while.

  2. Finally back! Glad you enjoyed this film as much as I did (I gave it the same grade). The weak point I thought was the romance between Doug and Claire which felt like it was supposed to be central to the movie, but really was too weakly developed to be that way.

    • @ Unrulytravller — It always warms my heart to know that I was missed! 🙂 It might be a bit early for “The Town” to have hit Liberec, but hold out hope — it’s almost worth the wait. “The Town” is very good but stops short of being great because the story drags at points. And unlike “Gone Baby Gone,” which forever will be Ben Affleck’s masterpiece, the violence overpowers the human element.

      @ Castor — I was OK with the romance because to me it didn’t feel rushed, but you’re right that it seemed to be a major point that kind of petered out during the 85 shootouts. Like I said above, I feel like “The Town” was missing a bit of that emotional oomph that made “Gone Baby Gone” truly exceptional.

  3. The action didn’t seem distracting, rather a workplace hazard that associates itself to the life Doug and Jem live.

  4. I’ve said this on a number of other blogs but this movie really needed to either have the subplots cut down or expanded. Either Fergie’s involvement in Doug’s tragic childhood is important, or it isn’t. Either Doug’s relationship with Jem’s sister matters, or it doesn’t. The former is dumped on us at the last minute to add some sort of tension to the final job (cheap tension) and the latter should represent one of the cords tethering Doug to Charlestown (in addition to his father and his friendships with his crew). They just feel superfluous and unnecessary.

    Regardless, The Town is a great movie for Affleck since neither element sinks the overall picture– which I think is a testament to his skill behind the camera. He’s proven twice in a row that he’s a strong director. Now let’s see him really solidify himself in that role and make a new name for himself.

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