Ben Affleck takes on Beantown
by Jason Blair
THE TOWN: Directed by Ben Affleck. Written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, based on Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan. Cinematography, Robert Elswit. Music, Harry Gregson-Williams. Starring Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper. Warner Bros, 2010. R. 123 minutes.
If your idea of current events is the latest release at your local cinema, chances are you’ve grown wary of Boston, which of late has been taking a beating at the multiplex. Or should I say, giving a beating: At face value, films like Mystic River and The Departed present Boston as manically, even hereditarily violent, an impression only deepened with Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. While the actual city of Boston has experienced a dramatic decline in murder rates — a recovery called the Boston Miracle — cinematic Boston doesn’t appear to be easing up. In this vein Affleck returns as director and star of The Town, a starkly enjoyable crime thriller that is lean, tense and resolute. In other words, it’s a wicked pissah of a flick.
In a film heavily indebted to Michael Mann’s Heat — more on that score later — it’s only fitting that Affleck’s Doug MacRay is a brooding but disciplined thief. Emotionally noncommittal, focused only on the next job, Doug is the ringleader, the first among equals. He is the brains behind a successful crew of bank and armored car robbers, an outfit which includes Jem (Jeremy Renner from Hurt Locker), a crook who makes loose cannons look like cap guns. When someone suggests cracking some skulls, Jem’s reply is, “Whose car we gonna take?” Like the ex-Presidents from Point Break, the crew’s signatures are their masks: During the first heist, they’re hooded in skeleton-and-dreadlocks garb, the mask allowing Doug to flirt anonymously with bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall). It’s a very un-Doug move, but it gets worse. After the heist, Doug follows Claire — then, impossibly, befriends her — ostensibly to ensure she’s not cooperating with the Feds.
The Federal crime unit is notable for the inclusion of Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Adam Frawley, a role in which Hamm seems lost and uncomfortable. It’s not entirely Hamm’s fault. Hamm, who excels at skirting emotion as Mad Men’s Don Draper, is playing to his weakness as Frawley — barking orders and stomping about angrily, looking amateurish — while the rest of the cast of The Town plays perfectly to their strengths. Renner’s Jem is an inch shy of caricature, a sociopath who might explode at any moment. Jem will be remembered as one of the great performances of the year, and Affleck wisely centers The Town around his twitchy energy. Affleck, who occupies every frame — how does one direct a film from the business end of the camera? — delivers his most understated role in years, while veterans Chris Cooper (as Affleck’s father) and Pete Postlethwaite (as his employer) turn in the briefest, most mesmerizing work of their careers. In short, Hamm picked the wrong film for his coming out party.
Affleck, who directed Gone Baby Gone with brittle confidence, displays the gifts of a first-rate artist in The Town. The great achievement of this film is that by the final heist — all photographed by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), and each a classic of organized ferocity — you may not love the villains, but you’ll hate to see them fail. There’s jeopardy everywhere in The Town, be it Doug’s love for Claire, Jem’s homicidal mistrust or the gravitational pull of the thug life. If Affleck, in adapting Chuck Hogan’s novel, has lifted entire scenes from Heat — the coffeeshop encounter, the secret signal by telephone — at least he’s stealing from the best.