The Town: Just keep directing, Ben

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

Is The Town ‘Heat meets The Departed,’ as the ads portray?  No—it’s better.  Is it Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s scintillating first directorial effort?  Not quite, although comparing anything with a Dennis Lehane adaptation (hello, Mystic River and Shutter Island) is unfair.  Should it put the final nail in the coffin of the notion, put forth on the basis of some wooden performances, Affleck has no cinematic talent?  One can only hope.

As in Gone, Affleck makes a gritty side of Boston an integral character in his story.  This time it’s the suburb of Charlestown, which supposedly endures the most bank robberies, per capita, of any town in the country.  But this is no moral drag—our protagonists, led by Affleck’s Doug MacRay—are doing the pilfering.  See that security guard over there, the one who’s 5’10”, 225?  “He’s about to get robbed.”

In the film’s opening robbery, MacRay’s crew microwaves security tapes, checks for fake rolls of bills, and persuades the bank manager named Claire (Rebecca Hall) to open the vault—all neat touches that keep one’s interest amidst the usual “Get down on the floor!” stuff. (Are you listening, Inside Man?) But when Jim (Jeremy Renner) abducts said bank manager and lets her go with a vow of silence, Doug realizes he has a problem.  Fearing Jim’s impulse control, he agrees to supervise and befriend her to stay abreast of what she’s thinking, and something resembling a romance blossoms between the two.

Other subplots include the FBI’s efforts (led by Jon Hamm, from TV’s “Mad Men”) to track down these serial robbers and the friction between Doug and Jim over their past and future.  The latter represents the most interesting conflict in the movie, making it a bit frustrating that it’s not developed more, especially alongside the other, more conventional threads.  The thrills of The Town are its characters, much more nuanced and shaded than the ones in most crime dramas (cough, Heat).  Jim is the hot-wire act of the group, the one who can’t resist pounding one of his hostages to a pulp or arrogantly taking off his hockey mask during an attack on a couple neighborhood thugs.  Renner is excellent at making him a tightly-coiled, twitchy little punk; when he surprises Doug and Claire at a café, his menacing insouciance clash perfectly with Doug’s nervousness and Claire’s befuddlement.

When Doug declares that he wants to flee Boston, Jim reminds him that he served 9 years in jail in order to keep him alive.  But that’s not enough for Doug, who doesn’t want to stay in the same place he and his cronies have lived their whole lives; with Claire, hopefully, he’ll get away from the FBI, from his white-trash childhood flame, Jim’s sister (Blake Lively, as up-and-down as she is in “Gossip Girl”), from memories of his imprisoned father (Chris Cooper, predictably excellent), from streets that he can’t walk down without fear of being attacked for one reason or another.

As such, The Town is more character-driven than the previews would suggest, and it thankfully provides its talented ensemble cast moments to shine (as so many movies don’t).  I wouldn’t have minded more Cooper, as always, but in addition to him, Pete Postlethwaite (florist-by-day, kingpin-by-night), Hall, and Renner all leave impressions.  Even Affleck himself isn’t half-bad, suggesting depth in his character’s indecision over his profession and his loyalty to his old friends versus his new one.

And as director, Affleck imparts a reassuring sense of pacing, a calming sense of quietude, a remarkable command of tone.  He uses numerous establishing shots of the neighborhood, whether from overhead or street-level, of buildings about to be inhabited, reminding us that the sense of place defines everyone here.  The chase scenes all emphasize the narrow, seemingly dead-end streets of Charlestown, features that keep said scenes fresh and propulsive; they’re not Bourne-style, uber-crisp chases, but they’re not supposed to be—just like the robbers, Affleck is thoughtful and skilled, but intentionally rough around the edges.  Even those distorted nun masks remain in memory, demonstrating that movies can still startle people, if they know where to look.

The Town is imperfect enough that I’ll have to see it again to truly understand its place with other solid films.  The FBI’s work is standard fare, and there’s a hint of flab in the ending after Doug’s crew leaves the location of their final caper, but Affleck (co-writer of the adaptation of the script, based on a novel) redeems it with his character’s final phone call to Claire.  Indeed, I was greatly relieved that the ending avoids natural pitfalls, from minor to potentially devastating.  I love when I can foresee a movie’s last line and hope I’m right, and that’s exactly what happens here.  My favorite dialogue, though, comes when Jim and Doug prepare one final escape from danger.  “See you in Florida,” the latter says, to which Jim replies, “See you when you get back.”


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