USA. 2010. Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay adapted by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard. Based on the 2004 novel, “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan. Starring: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Chris Cooper, Slaine, Owen Burke, Titus Welliver, Jon Hamm, Pete Postlethwaite, Dennis McLaughlin and Corena Chase.
I am trying to figure out specifically why I feel rather insouciant towards Ben Affleck’s second directorial feature, The Town. The movie, on the surface, is well executed and well acted, and the intriguing elements from the source novel, Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan are there. Yet, in contrast to the many positive reviews this film has garnered, I walked away feeling the characters and story had never come to three dimensional life.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that the movie’s general story arc is much more familiar this time around compared to Affleck’s very fine 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. We have seen the plot of the criminal wanting to leave his criminal roots after one final job and the anti-hero who finds unexpected love that gradually compels him to break out of his old ways. Hence, the story requires more life breathed into it to overcome its familiar elements and the movie ultimately never quite gets there.
The setting of The Town is the neighborhood of Charlestown in Boston about which the movie informs us that it produces more bank robbers than any other town in the world. The movie’s opening scene is a bank heist executed by longtime thief, Doug McRay (Ben Affleck) and his gang including his best friend and right-hand man, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Albert “Gloansy” Magloan (Slaine) and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), all dressed in disguise. They also hold the bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) at gunpoint to open the vault and then briefly take her hostage blindfolded amidst their getaway.
Though unharmed, Claire, who is not a native from Charlestown, is traumatized by the experience. An FBI agent, Adam Brawley (Jon Hamm from TV’s Mad Men) interviews her to see what she can remember but she cannot, as the gang had masked disguises and she was blindfolded while she was taken hostage. Meanwhile, the gang is anxious that she lives very close to their home and just might recognize them, particularly James, who shows some signs of sociopathic tendencies. While he seems to suggest that he should pay her a visit to most likely kill her, Doug, who is more reasonable and controlled, decides he will step into check that she cannot identify them. He introduces himself to her at a Laundromat and, against his expectations, starts to gradually fall for Claire, all while FBI agent Brawley is closing in to nab Doug and his gang.
The relationship between Doug and Claire is the crux of the story, especially since it builds to an impetus for him to break away from his life of crime and avoid ending up like his old father, Stephen (Chris Cooper) who is in jail for robbery and murder. However, as solid as Affleck and Hall are, their dialogue exchanges, which take up the movie’s first half, seem more workman-like and never ignite with any true spark or passion. The passion is particularly necessary, given the improbability of the actual romance and, while I believed it in the novel, I did not quite buy it in the movie. It also does not help that the scenes between Affleck and Hall often feel disjointed and episodic, as we leave a conversation just when it sounds like it could get interesting.
The other crucial aspect that is curiously missing in The Town, especially compared to Gone Baby Gone, is moments of privacy and individual reflection for the characters. Considering the story is about a man who attempts to balance between two greatly conflicting ways of life in his own criminally blurred conscience, the movie should have afforded scenes of Doug’s inner brooding in the turmoil. Yes, the homegrown factors that are holding him back to his criminal lifestyle are apparent, including his best friend, James and his runner, Fergus (Pete Postlethwaite), who gives the crew their assignments. However, the movie never makes us feel for Doug’s inner conflict enough to empathize with him to actively root for his escape from the surroundings.
What the movie does have going for it is the all-around fine performances from its cast, although the best of them come more from the supporting players. Jeremy Renner, following his Oscar-nominated work in The Hurt Locker, particularly stands out as the best friend who is a mass of hotheaded confusion and therefore quite unpredictable in what he will do next or even how to read what he is doing at the moment. Another strong turn comes from Blake Lively in a smaller but crucial role as a strung-out, promiscuous single mom who has a past with Affleck’s Doug (and is the Renner character's sister) and represents yet another symbolic factor pulling him down to stay in his corrupt lifestyle. The always lovely Rebecca Hall is also good as usual and she certainly makes you understand why Doug would instantly decide to fall for her from the beginning.
Affleck is also solid as a performer but perhaps he was too daunted to fully flesh out his story between his multiple duties as actor, director and co-writer with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard as well as the more technical bank heist action scenes. The scenes of the robberies and shootouts in the beginning and the climax end up being the best part of the movie even if they more than take their cue from Michael Mann’s Heat. Affleck, as he also showed in Gone Baby Gone, shows that he knows how to hone in close to the action and build a real oppressive feel to it avoid glamorizing the resultant bloody violence. I only wish that the same care and attention had been given to the overall story.
So the movie, I think, is a slight come-down for Affleck as a director after Gone Baby Gone but he still shows real promise of a good directorial career ahead of him. He knows how to extract good performances out of his cast and displays the technical facility to build and mount individual scenes. If he can learn how to pace the scenes better and allow them more room to breathe, he can grow to be a stronger storyteller. And on the basis of his first two movies, perhaps when he directs, he should remain behind the camera so that he can have a more instinctive feel for the substance in his story.