The sense of place in Ben Affleck’s The Town is outstanding. The film introduces Charlestown, MA – a square mile town that averages almost a single bank robbery every day – as a source of evil. The inhabitants are products of their filthy environment, and the only way for them to survive is to become evil. Even the authorities, represented by an unrelenting Jon Hamm, are unsympathetic jerks who use people to their advantage without thinking twice. It’s not a pretty place to live, and it takes Doug MacRay (Affleck) a while to figure that out.
Following in his father Stephen’s (Chris Cooper) prison-bound footsteps, Doug is the leader of a local bank-robbing crew consisting of four men. Gloansy Magloan (Slaine) and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke) are the technical experts. Doug plays the role of the planner and overseer, and his fiery best friend Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) is the man the crew relies on to make on-the-spot decisions. He isn’t always correct, though, and he makes a crucial mistake during the opening heist sequence: he takes a hostage, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), who lives right in the middle of the area in which they operate.
Knowing Jem’s violent intentions, Doug volunteers to follow up and make sure Claire doesn’t cause any problems. One day at the laundromat, Doug sees Claire crying, consoles her, and asks her out. They are soon dating seriously, which causes hostility in multiple corners. Hamm’s FBI agent, previously believing Claire’s knowledge to be minimal, begins asking her more questions. And Krista (Blake Lively), Doug’s longtime girlfriend and Jem’s sister, struggles to accept the fact that her lover has moved on.
The stage is set for a mountain of confrontations, but you’d be surprised how many conflicts are only glanced over in this two-hour film. But this is a uniformly accomplished cast that makes the most of each and every scene. As Doug’s father, for example, Chris Cooper is relegated to just a single scene, but it goes a long way towards discovering parts of Doug’s past. Blake Lively’s encouraging performance is also implemented only sporadically; as co-writer, Affleck – who adapted the script from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves – is more interested in the impact of his character’s current girlfriend than his previous one.
By the end, The Town reveals itself to be about a character who is trying for the second time to leave a place that has corrupted him since childhood. But it’s a struggle. As Jem bluntly says to Doug, “There are people I can’t let you walk away from.” One of those people is Jem himself, who can’t bear the thought of a life without fighting the law. Another is an unspeakably greedy florist named Fergie, who is played terrificly by Pete Postlethwaite (Inception).
This is Affleck’s second, and superior, directorial effort. His debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a bit too caught up its convoluted mystery plot to have the same effect as The Town. Although this film has gritty elements, it does has a surprising sense of humor about itself. Affleck, sporting his Boston attire in several scenes, is very authentic in his portrayal, and audiences appear to have a great connection with this small-town persona of his. Electrifying co-star Jeremy Renner is less familiar to audiences at this point, but because he is a more versatile on-screen talent, crowds are destined to be mesmerized by his modest, but memorable role.
The skill with which Affleck shoots the action scenes is another unexpected surprise. The final heist sequence is admittedly overblown, but the first two stand for nothing except high-octane entertainment. The heist where the crew dresses as withered nuns is identified by an exceptionally crisp and involving car chase that will be, for many people, the highlight of the film.
The attractive simplicity of Affleck’s approach is also, ironically, what keeps the film from being groundbreaking. But the promising part is that Affleck is evidently not trying to do anything groundbreaking. He is working in the realm of efficiency, which is a great place to start. Few actors-turned-directors are blessed with Affleck’s ability to immerse the viewer in a believable setting. Additionally, this is probably the best screen performance he’s has ever given. There is something about seeing Ben Affleck in a Bruins jacket that is just so darn authentic. Even the final shot, an unmistakable cliche, comes across as sincere and heartfelt. You realize you’re in the hands of a genuine filmmaker.
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