Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw Reviews The Town
In 2007, Ben Affleck's feature-length directorial debut Gone Baby Gone hit theaters, proving something that few of us had ever dared to imagine: that Ben Affleck is a pretty good director. Back then, the actor/writer/director/die-hard Boston native still had the shadow of his tabloid celebrity image clinging to his back, but the quality of work he put out with Gone Baby Gone was enough to reverse that perception and return some of the respect that Affleck had lost while living in front of the perpetual light of paparazzi flash bulbs.
With his second directorial feature, The Town, Affleck seemed poised to silence even the most ardent critics who refuse to accept his transition back from pretty boy celeb to the gifted artist who sprung to fame in the '90s with Good Will Hunting. So, does Affleck deliver on the good faith that has been slowly building around him since his talent as a director was first revealed? In a word: absolutely.
The Town is a gripping and tense crime-drama about Charlestown, Boston, an small municipality that has earned a rep for being "the bank robbery capital of America." This is a town (traditionally Irish, but changing with the times) where people grow up in cesspool of violence and family dysfunction - where daddy makes his earnings either in blue-collar servitude or high-stakes crime and mommy is more likely to be strung-out on dope than she is to win housekeeper of the year award. Of the babies born in Charlestown, few ever escape - more likely they grow to be just like their parents before them, perpetuating the dark cycle of crime, addiction, dysfunction and utter despair.
Affleck not only directs but also stars in the film as Doug MacRay. Doug is a lifelong Charlestown native who used to have a life of promise as an all-star hockey player, but ultimately fell victim to the pitfalls of his upbringing and landed in the same criminal enterprise as his father (Chris Cooper), whose own criminal career ended in a never-ending prison stint. Unlike his dad, Doug is a smarter and more reserved criminal: he plans his heist jobs calmly and carefully leaving no detail out and never doing any more damage than is required to get the job done. When not pulling a job, he tries to keep his head down and his name and face off the cops' radar.
If Doug is the calm, calculating, criminal architect, his best friend Jimmy (Jeremy Renner) is the polar opposite: a hot-headed ex-con trigger man who's ready leave blood on the street at the drop of a dime. Filling out the ranks of Doug and Jimmy's heist crew are Albert (Slaine) the wheel man and Desmond (Owen Burke), the inside man who knows all about wiring and counter-surveillance. The four crooks each bring something to table and balance each other out - the jobs they pull are smooth, precise, and done with minimal fanfare or violence. For all intents and purposes, this is a crew at the top of their game.
Of course their luck starts to end the day that they hit a local Boston bank. Jimmy decides on a whim to kidnap terrified bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) as getaway insurance, and even though they are wearing masks and ultimately let Claire go, Jimmy can't shake the feeling that she could be a liability. Fearing that his boy might do something drastic, Doug decides to keep an eye on Claire himself, and in doing so, he accidentally makes her acquaintance and the two are soon fall in love with one another.
However, while Doug's personal life is making a complicated turn for the better, his professional life is spiraling out of control. A relentless FBI agent (Jon Hamm) has gotten wind about Doug and his crew, while a local gangster (Pete Postlethwaite) is determined to keep Doug and his boys under thumb. And, despite their long history, Doug and Jimmy are starting to find themselves at odds over everything from Doug's new love interest to the types of jobs they take and what lengths they're willing to go to pull them off.
Gone Baby Gone showed us that Affleck has definite skill when it comes to telling a focused and engaging story on film - which shouldn't be surprising, considering he's an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Affleck co-wrote the script for The Town along with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, and the trio did a good job of distilling the central points of Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves into cinematic form, in this case the character arch of Doug MacRay and the larger commentary about what it is to grow up in a den of sin and despair like Charlestown. The film never wanders or loses focus; even at two hours it feels like it is always on point and economical with its time. This is lean, clean, movie-making that does exactly what it should: gets you to care about the characters involved, and keeps you guessing about what their fate will be.
The performances in the film are all pretty excellent. Affleck makes Doug MacRay a worthy central character, at once admirable, dangerous, vulnerable, strong, smart, foolish, brave and loyal to a fault. This movie would've been hard to take if Doug's character wasn't able to carry the narrative - but luckily for the film, Affleck was able to both create a three-dimensional sketch of Doug that he brings to life with deft skill and understanding onscreen.
Of course a leading man is only as good as the support he gets, and in The Town, Affleck has some pretty strong players to work with. Jeremy Renner steals every scene he's in as Jimmy Coughlin; as a no-holds-barred unapologetic thug, Jimmy is destined to go down as one of those cinematic bad guys people just love to root for, complete with a string of quotable lines that I'm pretty sure we'll be hearing repeated at length in the months to come.
Though their parts feel a bit marginalized in this boys club crime tale, actresses Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively are both standouts in the film. Hall (whose star is rising quicker by the day) has definitely left her mark playing the emotionally-torn Claire; if you don't know this actress from her past work in movies like Frost/Nixon, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Prestige, it will be hard to forget her after this film. Gossip Girl star Lively is virtually unrecognizable (in a good way) as Krista Coughlin, Jimmy's sister and yet another victim of Charlestown's wicked ways. Krista stumbles through the life on a never-ending bender of pills, booze and coke, neglecting her young daughter while simultaneously trying to win back Doug's love and favor, even though that bad romance is clearly something Doug has no further interest in. Lively manages to highlight Krista's deep-seeded hurt and vulnerability, hid beneath a glassy-eyed fog of what could have been a cliched addict role.
Jon Hamm manages to shed most of his suave Mad Men persona, playing an FBI agent who is as cunning and predatory as the crooks he pursues; he's definitely a good guy, but he's a good guy who has some very sharp teeth and claws. All in all, Hamm's agent Frawley is a worthy adversary for Doug and his crew - somebody we know as "the good guy" but aren't necessarily rooting for at the same time (a tough balancing act). The cameos by Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite (see above) are short but intensely powerful. As two seasoned Charlestown gangsters, the two veteran actors walk onscreen and clearly mark their territory: the monologues they each deliver at pivotal points in the film are moments that will likely be burned into your brain (Postlethwaite's especially).
While Gone Baby Gone proved that Affleck has the director's eye for cinematography, photography, pacing and structure, The Town proves that his directorial sensibilities extended into the action arena as well - something that Gone Baby Gone didn't quite evidence. The heist sequences in The Town are all executed very well - from the actual robberies to the shootouts and car chases - the action is always clean, easy to follow (read: no shaky cam) and it's all pretty damn thrilling. But while the action and suspense was good, I couldn't fully ignore the nagging feeling that there is still some room for growth inside Ben Affleck. I totally believe that this man wasn't meant to be a good director - he was meant to be a great one, but he isn't quite to that point just yet. Almost there, but not quite there.
Still, to the director's credit you're never quite certain what the outcome of the action is going to be, or what thresholds these characters are going to have to cross. The fact that you care about the people in the situation makes all the difference; you don't just care about their physical well-being, you care about the emotional impact this life and violence and danger will have on them. And that's a hard trick to pull off.
I was held in suspense all the way through the end credits of The Town and its hard for me to imagine somebody walking away from this film feeling bored. The story, action and characters are all engaging and well-crafted, and if the progression between Gone Baby Gone and this film is any indication, Affleck's next (third) film is going to likely blow our collective socks off. A good start to the 2010 Fall movie season.
Watch the trailer for The Town to help you make up your mind: