Renn: Ben Affleck has settled back into the director’s chair for his second feature film, following the well-received Gone Baby Gone, and by god, 2010 is better for it. The Town isn’t going to change the way you look at bank robbery films, but it could very well end up being among your favorites. It’s a compelling story told by a skillful director with strong actors backed by a punchy script. There are flaws to be found in each of these pieces, but nothing in this film is bad, and several things are great. Nick’s thoughts can be found here, while Micah, Andrew, and I are going to take you through our thoughts on the film in this Tag Team Review.
I want to start off with how surprised but pleased I am to say that Ben Affleck has managed to deliver some of the most satisfying action projected onto a white screen this year. The bank robberies, fights, and car chases in The Town are razor-sharp and exciting. Be it the opening bank robbery, which is both precise and violent, or the final climactic sequence that rips and tears through the streets and alleyways of Boston, this movie takes the action very seriously. The greatest part is that you can see every beat of it clearly, you always know where you are, and every gunshot and wrecked car feels real.
The action wouldn’t be enough if the rest of the film was a slog, and while the story doesn’t break any new ground, it never stumbles either. Affleck finds small character moments and subtle signals in which to play around with the themes of imprisonment and escape, and you get the feeling that he has a lot of growth and potential left in him as a director, even if he never fully stretches his wings with this material.
Micah: There simply isn’t much to stretch. Where Gone Baby Gone was a textured crime and character story that really got to the seedy underbelly of the Boston lower class, The Town is a rather familiar “heroic criminal” story that happens to be set in the same area. All the familiar tropes are there from the crook with a conscience who wants to make a change to the lady who steals his heart but doesn’t fully understand what he does to the sawed-off best friend who causes as much trouble as he alleviates to the crooked boss and associates that don’t want him to leave them behind.
In the early-to-mid 90s, Hollywood used to thrive with this sort of modest, midrange crime flick, so we got films like Things To Go In Denver When You’re Dead and State of Grace, which followed the exact same blueprint The Town does. The current studio system isn’t particularly friendly to this model, so The Town almost succeeds simply by virtue of being. It’s an odd sort of picture this day and age. Affleck, both as co-writer and director, is clearly trying to elevate this to something more along the lines of Heat, but he doesn’t have the story or the cast to fly quite that high. None of the members of Affleck’s robbery crew are memorable save for Jeremy Renner, who does his best to plump up a paper thin “unhinged best friend” archetype. Pete Postlethwaite’s scummy crime boss isn’t a particularly menacing or unique threat save for his bizarro-Scottish brogue.
All this sounds as if I’m down on the flick, but I’m not. It’s an enjoyable little nugget, but the connections to Gone Baby Gone and the caliber of the cast might have you thinking you’re in for cinematic Wagyu beef ribeye, when Affleck’s really just serving up a pretty tasty ground chuck patty with some good trimmings. It was more than enough for me.
Andrew: Micah’s enthusiasm is palpable, isn’t it? I, on the other hand, was pretty damn taken with The Town. I’m a Michael Mann disciple, so it shouldn’t be any big surprise that I loved The Town, but the things that really made it sing for me are the things that Micah is down on. The cast, first of all, is dead-on. Not just Affleck and Renner, who are both great, but the supporting cast of relative newcomers and cameo appearances is surprisingly good. First off, Jon Hamm. I’ve seen a bit of Mad Men and liked him on 30 Rock, but TV and film are different animals (even if that’s becoming less true by the day). Hamm really steps up and owns the “grungy, workman’s FBI agent” role. It’s a pretty far cry from the buttoned-down, pseudo-repressed Don Draper, but he makes it believable, never quite dipping into that mid-90s cartoon FBI agent we’ve seen a thousand times before. I liked both Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper in their roles as well, but honestly, they’re little more than cameos. That said, Postlethwaite has a little reveal later in the movie that paints his character flawlessly, and that moment is worth casting him. My biggest fear for The Town was in casting Blake Lively. She’s a pretty girl, and I loved her in Accepted (Shut up!), but among this cast, I really wasn’t sure if she could pull off the Amy Ryan role. Walking out of the theater, it hit me that I really didn’t notice her, which in my mind, is the best possible outcome for her. She disappears into her character, and is never “Blake Lively” playing Coughlin’s sister. (That’s a compliment.)
The story for The Town isn’t as complex as Gone Baby Gone, but then again, it feels like Affleck et. al chose to focus more on the other elements this time around, trading action for complexity, reducing the peripherals, and streamlining to a single through line. It’s not a criticism by any means, it’s simply a different way to tell a story. I disagree with Renn, in that I feel like Affleck is stretching in what he does. Lessening the dramatic in favor of a more kinetic (dare I say action-y) story isn’t laying down on the job. It’s something he’s not done before, and I would argue, brings a completely new set of challenges to a young director.
Renn: Challenges he stepped up to admirably. I think I’ve adequately gushed about the strength of the action sequences, but it’s worth noting that same precision extends to the rest of the film’s visuals. Affleck engages a lot of very subtle, powerful images in the film (my mind keeps returning to the use of planes specifically) that show the promise of a director that will be capable of bringing us some strong visual thematics in his future work. He’s not able to fully run with that here –it’s a robbery film after all, you have to keep the shit moving– but it’s obvious Affleck has a keen eye for what his characters are feeling at any given moment, and a talent for visually expressing it.
Affleck is also becoming a fast pro at exploiting filmmaking craft to heighten the quality of his film. Collaborating with and There Will Be BloodMichael Clayton cinematographer Robert Elswit, The Town has the typical cool-tones of a modern crime flick, but shot with a camera that is as simultaneously kinetic and precise as the film itself. This is backed by one of the most powerful and punching soundtracks I’ve heard all year. The gunshots seem to tear through the screen, while the quiet ambiances of Charlestown make us feel as comfortable and confident as our protagonists do in their native stomping grounds. I was impressed with Affleck’s use of sound in the story, with a key shift in the final robbery centering specifically around some very delicately conceived and orchestrated sound work. Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if The Town became an Oscar-nominated film due to the work of the sound team.
I’d agree with most of the sentiments here regarding the specific actors, though Chris Cooper can never get enough notice for doing a lot with a little. Postlethwaite chews up a standard physically-unimposing, scary-by-virtue-of-power boss role with a nasty accent, and an old-school confidence. Jeremy Renner deserves a lot of credit as well for the dangerous edge he brings to James Coughlin. We see hardass, randomly violent thugs who ‘don’t give a fuck’ in films all the time. It’s very rare that we see a frighteningly believable psychopath that is dangerous precisely because he does give a fuck, every time, whether it’s warranted or not. I run through the ensemble and find a lot to like, though no moments shine particularly bright. In this way The Town feels like The Departed-lite, with a big cast of fun characters, environmental personality, and exciting crime scenes, but nothing that comes close to matching the crazy of Nicholson or those deaths that come from nowhere. This is not a bad place to be with your first crime fill though, especially when you manage a consistently entertaining and sturdy narrative, that also demonstrates promise and ambition.
Micah: The narrative didn’t do much for me because you know exactly where the movie is going to go, and exactly what type of fates most of the characters are going to meet. I wouldn’t call it The Departed-lite either, simply because the romance between Rebecca Hall and Ben Affleck is far more central to this film than the late-stage triangle between Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and and Vera Farmiga. In fact, it’s more prominent than in pretty much any of the crime flicks we’ve mentioned in this review.
That’s also not a bad thing because Hall and Affleck sell the hell out of it, and the evolution of their relationship is natural and believable. But I wonder if some guys in the target audience might think of the film a little differently when they realize they’re kinda watching a chick flick with shootouts.
In any case, The Town is, I think, a small film. It’s a small-scale story about small people trapped in a very small place trying to cope with the small lives they lead. It’s important to keep that in mind because the expectations anyone might bring into the film due to its similarities to The Departed and Heat could set a bar that’s too high and more than a little unfair, frankly. It’d be great to go on about the thematic depth and subtext, but this picture isn’t particularly deep nor is it particularly inventive. It’s a straightforward old-fashioned cops and robbers story wrapped around a very gushy romantic core and done very well. Andrew seems taken aback because I’m emphasizing its obvious, workmanlike nature, but I don’t believe there should be a stigma associated with a modern drama that isn’t about surprises, and doesn’t inspire Inception-esque discussion afterward, but rather merely provides solid entertainment for two hours.
(7.8 out of 10)
Andrew: I’ll agree with Micah on both the points he made that I liked. The romance between Affleck and Hall is the film’s high point, and if you don’t believe that romance, the rest of the film is simply sound and fury. I’m laying the credit for it working so well squarely at the feet of Rebecca Hall and Affleck the director. It’s not that I didn’t like ol’ Ben in his role, but he’s the Boston equivalent of a good old boy (forgive me, I live in the South) in that he comes off slightly dumb in the romantic scenes, when he’s as sharp as a tack in the crime-planning and execution ones. It’s a tough line to walk, and I’m not sure I completely bought the dichotomy. I say that only to contrast Rebecca Hall, who I believed every step of the way. I’d not seen her in anything of note until The Town, and her first impression is a great one. Micah’s other point that I agree with here is that it’s a small story. It’s the claustrophobia that permeates the movie that really helped its tension for me. The idea that these guys never had a chance to be anything but criminals, that they couldn’t get out if they wanted to. And that theme comes back several times over the course of the film, culminating in their getaway from a crime, where the streets are just too narrow for the driver to maneuver, preventing an easy exit.
For me, it’s that attention to theme that really sets The Town apart from the standard and rote crime film. There are plenty of opportunities to turn The Town into something simpler, something closer to Armored, for example. But at the end of the day, I really felt like Affleck resisted that temptation, delivering a straightforward narrative while still leaning more on the characterization than the firepower. The Town doesn’t have the broken heart that Gone Baby Gone does, but it stands on its own for the ground it covers.
(8.6 out of 10)
Renn Brown: At the risk of splitting hairs, I don’t feel the romance should be framed as particularly gooey or overbearing here. In fact, I’d strongly disagree that it’s any more prominent that the romance in most other crime films from Goodfellas, to Heat, or yes, even the aforementioned The Departed, which used Vera Farmiga to explicitly expose tons of background for two central characters. Ultimately the love story is key, but I doubt any of us would argue that it’s going to bore viewers. It’s there for the obvious reasons, but it’s also Affleck’s excuse to dig into the character of Charlestown. Affleck perhaps doesn’t manage to bring out the voice of the area with the same care he demonstrated in Gone Baby Gone, but the prejudices, violence, and poverty of “The Town” are essential to the story.
It’s true, they don’t make them like this very often. There doesn’t seem to be much tolerance for a film with as much of a dynamic range, where the action is completely engaging and meaty, but shares the screen with legitimate thematic work. The Town is an impressive effort and certainly a victory for Affleck the director, who obviously has a solid handle on how to make a sturdy motion-picture. He’s delivered a consistently entertaining story that also demonstrates promise and ambition. I can’t wait to see what he tackles next, and hope he continues to reveal as much of an increased range as is on display here.
(8.4 out of 10)