Before I get to my review, you should understand that I nearly didn’t see The Town last night. Earlier, on Friday morning, I had to leave work early because I was so sick and nauseous that I was on the verge of passing out. Once I got home, I had to 1) convince my aunt that I wasn’t pregnant (“Are you sure?” she said after I reassured her) and 2) had to convince myself that my appendix wasn’t about to burst (and it’s not so don’t worry). After all that, there was a part of me that said, “The Town can wait. I’ll go on Saturday or maybe even later in the week.”
But I ignored that part of me and I went and saw the movie anyway. Why? Well, I wanted to review it for this site. (That’s dedication for you!) Plus, I knew my friend Jeff wanted to see it with me and I wanted to see it with him and since when has a little thing like a ruptured appendix ever been an excuse not to have a good time? Last but not least, The Town is Ben Affleck’s second movie as a director. His first was 2007’s Gone, Baby, Gone. Personally, I think Gone, Baby, Gone is one of the best crime films ever made. It’s certainly one of my favorite. I was curious to see if The Town would be a worthy follow-up or would it just prove Gone, Baby, Gone to have been a fluke.
The Town takes place in the Charlestown section of Boston. At the opening of the film, we’re told that Charlestown apparently produces more professional armed robbers than any other place in the entire world. It’s a practice that is handed down from father-to-son. (Or, in the case of this movie, from Chris Cooper to Ben Affleck.)
Affleck plays Doug, a former hockey player who is now the head of a gang of Charlestown bank robbers. His second-in-command is Jem (played by Jeremy Renner). Over the course of the film, we learn Doug’s father (Chris Cooper) is a career criminal who is currently serving a life sentence in prison. When his father went to prison, Doug was taken in by Jem’s family. Doug even ended up dating Jem’s sister (Blake Lively) and might be the father of Lively’s daughter. For this reason, Doug and Jem are fiercely loyal to each other despite the fact that Doug is essentially a nice guy and Jem is not.
(As a sidenote, why is it in the crime films that people are always shocked when the psychotic supporting character ends up doing psychotic? I mean, have these people never gone to the movies before? Have they never checked out Goodfellas from Netflix? Did they miss the whole Joe Pesci “How am I funny?” thing?)
At the start of the film, Doug, Jem, and the gang rob a bank. Doug is a model of professionalism. Jem goes a little bit crazy and beats one bank employee nearly to death. This gives the bank manager, Clare (Rebecca Hall), just enough time to set off a silent alarm. Realizing that the police are on the way, Jem responds by taking Clare hostage as the gang flees. Clare is later released on a desolate beach.
However, there’s a problem. Before releasing her, Jem stole Clare’s ID. Looking at it after the robbery, he discovers that Clare lives in Charlestown and, as a result, there’s now a risk that she might simply see one of the gang on the street and identify him. Jem wants to kill her but Doug says that he’ll take care of her himself.
By “taking care of,” Doug means that he’ll follow her around town, eventually strike up a conversation with her, and then end up pursuing a romance with her (while declining, of course, to mention that he already knows her). Jem, however, was under the impression that “taking care of” meant to kill. So, needless to say, he’s a little bit miffed when he stumbles across Doug and Clare having a lunch date.
Soon, Doug finds himself trapped in the life he’s created for himself. In love with Clare but torn by his loyalty to the increasingly unstable Jem, Doug agrees to one more big job. All the while, he is pursued by two relentless FBI agents (Jon Hamm and Titus Welliver) and he has to deal with an Irish mob boss (Pete Postlewaite) who has an agenda of his own.
The Town works largely because Ben Affleck has, unexpectedly, turned out to be an intelligent, no-nonsense director. The movie features three robbery scenes and, in each one of them, Affleck creates genuine tension and excitement without ever once resorting to outlandish stunts or random slow motion. Unlike a lot of (bad) actors turned director, Affleck never seems to feel the need to toss in any showy (but ultimately empty) tricks to try to convince us that he’s a director. This is a confident movie that shows that Gone, Baby, Gone wasn’t a fluke. (That said, Gone, Baby, Gone remains the superior film for reasons that I’m getting to.)
Also, as with Gone, Baby, Gone, The Town benefits from Affleck’s obvious love for the city and people of Boston. Shot on location and featuring a number of local actors, The Town has a wonderful sense of place to it. By the end of it, you feel as if you know Charlestown even if, like me, you’re just a country girl from Texas.
Ben Affleck the director also manages to do something truly surprising — he gets a good performance out of Ben Affleck the actor. In the past, I’ve always enjoyed looking at Ben Affleck on-screen but I never really wanted to hear him talk. Because as soon as he would open his mouth, whatever appeal that Affleck possessed would immediately dissolve. In the past, as an actor, Affleck often epitomized that whole concept of “there’s no there there.” However, in this film, he gives a low-key, subtle performance that really helps to hold the entire film together. I still wouldn’t call Affleck a good actor. Instead, he’s one of those rare directors who (like fellow bad actor Quentin Tarantino) knows how to get good performances even from the most unlikely of performers.
Affleck is well-supported by Hall, Lively, and Renner. Hall has a difficult job because she’s not so much playing an actual human being as much as she’s playing an idealized concept. Her character really doesn’t have any purpose beyond offering Doug a chance at redemption and (this is obvious more in retrospect than during the actual film) really doesn’t have much of an identity beyond how her life touches Doug’s. Hall, however, is so vulnerable in the role that, while you’re watching the film, that none of this really becomes obvious until a few hours after the movie ends. Lively (better known for her role on Gossip Girl) is only in a few scenes and, in many ways, her character is even less developed than Hall’s. If Hall has to represent the Madonna part of the Whore/Madonna complex, guess what Lively represents. Still, Lively brings some much needed humor to the role and to the film. She’s having fun playing her drunken, drug-addled character and she steals almost every scene that she’s in.
However, the film is ultimately dominated by Jeremy Renner. With his angelic voice and deceptively soft voice, Renner is the psychopath that you can’t help but love. Movie psychos are a dime-a-dozen so when an actor comes along and actually finds something new to do with the role, it’s impossible not to be impressed.
So much works in The Town that I almost feel guilty talking about what doesn’t. For all its strengths, it also has three rather glaring flaws. As with all things, the final verdict on this film depends on just how willing the viewer is to overlook these flaws.
First off, Ben Affleck proves himself to be a better director than writer. The Town’s story is well told but the majority of it will still be awfully familiar to anyone who has ever seen a heist film. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, or Michael Mann, Affleck doesn’t embrace the conventions in order to deconstruct them. Instead, he uses the conventional storyline as an excuse to explore the Charlestown culture. As a result, this flaw arguably works to the film’s advantage. Still, those viewers who are expecting to be surprised by the film’s plot should consider themselves warned.
As well acted as the movie is, there is one big exception in the cast and that is Mad Men’s Jon Hamm. Hamm plays the FBI agent who is determined to capture Affleck. He’s the Javert to Affleck’s Valjean. Unfortunately, as played by Jon Hamm, he’s also a cinematic black hole. Hamm may be an excellent television actor but, playing a key supporting role and surrounded by actual film actors, it’s obvious that Hamm has no idea how to act for the big screen. As a result, he never comes across as a worthy or even dangerous adversary and his pursuit of Affleck never becomes compelling nor do we ever worry that Affleck might not be able to outsmart him. There’s a scene, towards the end of the film, where Hamm yells something like, “Drop your weapon, asshole!” I have to admit that I stunned just about everyone in the theater when I burst into laughter at the sound of Hamm shouting “asshole” and sounding, more or less, like an overgrown kid on a playground.
(Hamm’s sidekick, by the way, is played by another tv actor, Titus Welliver. Welliver is probably best known for playing the Man In Black on the final season of Lost. Though he gets next to nothing to do, Welliver dominates every scene that he’s in. Unlike Hamm, he knows how to act on a big screen.)
The most glaring flaw with The Town, however, is that the entire plot pretty much depends on the viewer accepting that Hall’s character, just days after being traumatized by being held hostage and seeing one of her co-workers nearly beaten to death because he attempted to protect her, would so easily trust and open up her life to a stranger (even if that stranger is Ben Affleck). Never mind the fact that we are then expected to believe that she would stay loyal to Affleck even after learning the truth. Realistically, this would seem to indicate that the character’s something of a sadomasochist but the film really doesn’t explore that (or really anything else that might make Hall’s character anything more than just an idealized Madonna figure).
I mean, I’m always open to experimentation in a relationship. Different people enjoy different things and I’ve never been one to judge anyone else’s particular fetish. However, just speaking for myself, the day that you stick a gun in my face, put a blindfold over my eyes, and then abandon me out on the beach is the same day that I decide that there’s probably not going to be a long-term relationship there.
So, once again, it’s all a question of whether or not you can accept these flaws. I have to admit that, as I watched the film, I occasionally had a hard time doing so. If you can agree to overlook the flaws, however, then The Town is an entertaining, well-acted crime thriller with an authentic sense of place. And if you can’t overlook those flaws, than The Town is a good but imperfect movie that still indicates that Ben Affleck has got quite a future as a director.