The Town doesn’t prove that Ben Affleck
is a terrific filmmaker. Gone Baby Gone did that. What The Town town
achieves is proving that Ben Affleck’s ceiling as a filmmaker could
be considerably higher than anyone expected.

Small character moments and narrative
authenticity are not easy skills to master in film. Especially on the
biggest stage, where broad strokes are not only acceptable but
rewarded. The subtle nuances in these first two films under Affleck’s direction are plentiful. Little glances, innocuous lines, and little
visual cues help elevate the material immeasurably, and coupled with
impeccable casting it’s hard not to get swept up in what Affleck’s
selling.

Superficially The Town is a formula
film that could have easily been extremely light fare but under
Affleck’s guidance it’s one of the year’s strongest films to date.
With Gone Baby Gone there was a subtext behind the praise for
Affleck, almost as if people’s surprise that he was a capable
writer/director overshadowed everything. The only thing folks in the
film business like seeing more than one of their own falling on their
face is seeing them pick themselves back up, and Gone Baby Gone was a
triumphant example of that. Just big enough, but just small enough.
Respectable source material but not too respectable. And he helped
deliver his brother Casey to much-deserved respectability. The
overblown reaction to Gigli had come full circle.

The thing is, Ben Affleck made some bad
movies and a few really indefensible big budget time wasters but he
came out of the gate and won an Oscar. Sandwiched between the
stinkers were quite a few solid movies. He wasn’t damaged goods. He
just wasn’t able to replicate Good Will Hunting over and over. In the
past decade few things have been exaggerated as much as the ‘decline
of Ben Affleck’. The guy has always been good. He just made the
mistake of being famous. Ben Affleck chose to be a Movie Star over
being a Serious Actor but now he’s a Serious Filmmaker and that trumps
both.

The Town is a crime thriller, but not
really. It’s a heist movie, a police procedural, and a love story,
but not really. It’s a unique blend of genre staples that doesn’t
have enough meat on its bones to qualify as any one of those but as a
concoction it works tremendously. Affleck is Doug MacRay, the brains
of an outfit of bank and armored truck robbers. He’s controlled,
organized, and professional in a city famous for having the highest
rate of these kind of crimes in the world. He’s an overachiever in a
town full of Has Beens and Never Was’s but his loyalty to his hot
tempered best friend Jem (Jeremy Renner) tests his ability to
maintain control and at the film’s outset the team conducts a
successful theft from a bank vault but not without complications. Due to his instability Jem leaves a bank employee severely beaten and the oncoming police pressure forces him to take a hostage (Rebecca Hall), violating another of MacRay’s policies. The woman is unhurt but a variable Jem would just as soon silence permanently. MacRay chooses
to take point in checking her out and gets too close, resulting in
romance even though the woman is in contact with the FBI agents (John
Hamm and Titus Welliver) on their case. The seriously increased odds
stacked against the criminals in maintaining their lives as free men
serves as the backdrop of a film that somehow manages to balance
quite a few elements without sinking under the weight.

It’s a high concept conceit and it’s
always tricky to add a relationship amidst all of the threads of a
film like this. In fact, it is the romantic angle that has threatened
to scuttle otherwise worthwhile ventures [including nearly every
Michael Mann cop movie] and it often contrasts with the masculine
backdrop of stories of hard men and dangerous work. The film has
enough action and suspense to keep the love story from softening the
film’s edge too much, and luckily Jeremy Renner is on hand to provide
yet another powerhouse turn as the borderline psychopath Jem. Affleck is as good here as he’s ever been, if not better. The
standout though, is Renner delivering a performance that I can only
compare to a young Sean Penn in its intensity and authenticity.

Some elements are given less
effort than others like Blake Lively’s tacked on addict ex-girlfriend. Or MacRay’s desire to fix the dilapidated hockey rink. Even the subplot about his being abandoned by his mother. They’re not fully fleshed out but not weak enough to deaden the overall impact.

John Hamm starts off
seeming a little lightweight in his role but as the film progresses
he becomes more and more interesting and formidible in his portrayal
and there’s a really nice contrast between he and his ‘Townie’
adversaries. Titus Welliver is one of the most reliable character
actors there is and Pete Postlethwaite has a lot of fun as a mob
boss/florist. Rebecca Hall is quite good in a role that has the
unfortunate task of tying the two worlds of cops and crooks together
and though the romance doesn’t feel whole she does a nice job of
shading what could have been a simple victim consumed by the ordeal
that puts her and Doug MacRay together. Chris Cooper’s one scene as MacRay’s institutionalized father is
quite good, and one that carries more resonance as the story unfolds.

In a world and entertainment
marketplace overrun with crime shows and movies it’s not easy to
deliver the goods without being redundant but when every corner of The Town is manned by seriously gifted people on both sides of
the camera. Robert Elswit captures Boston’s grimy Charlestown suburb
magnificently, unafraid to embrace the lived-in world and not
overgloss the proceedings. It’s a beautiful film but in a more honest
blue-collar way and the title change from the source novel’s ‘Prince
of Thieves’ [an element that is cursory at best in the film] is apt
because this film truly is as much about the faded prison of a
borough that is Charlestown as it is any one of its inhabitants.
These people are all trapped and even in the film’s optimistic coda
there’s still a thick film of what ‘The Town’ takes from its
inhabitants. But what makes the movie shine for me is the little
moments. A note on a car, a cop looking the other way, and a
character who when facing certain death finds a moment of purity in a
sip from a discarded styrofoam cup. More than the excellently shot
action beats or quiet moments it’s those little moments that assure
that Ben Affleck the filmmaker is here to stay and that is a very
good thing.

The Town is to the
standard cop movie as a Springsteen song is to the standard pop song.
Dirtier, more heartfelt, and clinging to hope in the dimmest of
circumstances.

8.5 out of 10




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