I was blown away by Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, and so I was of course eager to see his second film: The Town. While I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as Gone Baby Gone, The Town is as an engaging and confident sophomore effort from Mr. Affleck, and definitely worth your time.
As with Gone Baby Gone, The Town is set in Boston (in this case, specifically, Charlestown). In both films, one of Mr. Affleck’s primary accomplishments has been in bringing that Boston setting to life to the degree that the film’s story is indelibly linked with the Boston location. By shooting in Boston, by casting naturalistic actors (as well as a variety of local non-actors), and by a million other details that Mr. Affleck and his team get just right, the streets of Boston become the film’s beating heart.
In addition to directing and co-writing the film (“It’s going to be awfully tough to walk away from this one,” Mr. Affleck told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last month, referring to his triple-threat role), Mr. Affleck stars as Doug, a hardened young man who works for a sand and gravel company breaking rocks — that is, when he’s not robbing Charlestown banks with his crew. In the heist that opens the film, Doug’s close friend (the two are practically brothers) Jem briefly takes the young bank manager, Claire, hostage in order to have some insurance in case the cops show up earlier than expected. They let her go, but Jem worries that she could incriminate them, so Doug agrees to discreetly find out what she knows. He arranges to accidentally bump into her at the laundromat, but quickly finds himself drawn to this young woman who, to Doug, represents his idealized vision of a life outside of The Town.
That doesn’t stike me as a terribly original hook for a film (troubled guy falls for a girl who makes him, you know, want to be a better man), and nothing in the narrative of The Town feels especially surprising. This, to me, is the main reason why I didn’t find The Town to be nearly as gripping as the edge-of-your-seat, where-the-heck-is-this-all-going narrative of Gone Baby Gone. I haven’t read Chuck Hogan’s novel, Prince of Thieves, on which The Town is based, but I can’t imagine it’s as strong a source material as was the novel by Dennis Lehane that was adapted for Gone Baby Gone.
But, OK, though The Town isn’t as good as Gone Baby Gone, it’s still a very well-made and entertaining thriller.
Mr. Affleck is a way better actor than he’s usually given credit for, and he’s great in the lead as Doug. He’s eminently believable as the street tough who robs banks, but he also sells the soft heart under Doug’s gruff exterior, and his desire to Get Out Of The Game. I think the role is undercut a bit by some weaknesses in the script that take pains to make Doug’s inner heart of gold a little TOO apparent as the film opens (he’s gentle to Claire, the bank manager, when Jem terrorizes her, and we quickly learn that he doesn’t even drink, for goodness sake!) whereas I would have preferred to more gradually discover that Doug isn’t the heartless punk that he might appear to be on the surface. (There’s one scene where Jon Hamm’s FBI agent describes to some other cops all sorts of nasty behaviors in Doug’s past, but we don’t see much evidence of that elsewhere in the film.) But that’s not a comment on Mr. Affleck’s performance — I think he’s fairly magnetic whenever he’s on-screen, and he has a charisma with which the audience easily connects, no matter how thick the Bahstan accent he puts on.
Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) is also terrific as Doug’s childhood pal “Jem” Coughlin. Here too, The Town traffics in the slightly familiar — how many crime films can you name in which the lead character has a close friend from the neighborhood who one begins to fear has crossed the line into dangerous, psychotic behavior? — but nevertheless Mr. Renner is really fun to watch in the role. Though physically a lot smaller than Doug, we can see danger behind Jem’s eyes at every turn, and this provides a fear-inducing ticking clock to the story.
Rebecca Hall has impressed me for a while now (she was great in The Prestige, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Frost/Nixon) and she’s also solid here. Once can easily see why Doug falls for her. I just wish we’d gotten to know her character a little more deeply over the course of the film — and that we’d seen a little more of her in the film’s second half.
I have the same feeling about Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) as Jem’s sister Krista. We can see that this girl is trouble when we first meet her early in the film, and she plays a key part in the story’s denouement, but between those moments she’s little seen. I would have loved to have spent some more time with her character, to explore a bit more deeply what hold she had (or has) on Doug.
Jon Hamm leaves Don Draper behind to play FBI agent Frawley, doggedly on the trail of Doug’s bank-robbing crew. He’s a great foil for Doug — every bit as sharp as Doug is — and I like that he isn’t portrayed as too much of a prick even though the movie clearly wants the audience to side with Doug as opposed to this face of law-and-order.
Mr. Affleck nabbed some great actors for smaller roles as well. Titus Welliver (the Man in Black himself!) is fun as Agent Frawley’s partner (and former Boston local) Dino Ciampa. A very skinny Pete Postlethwaite pops up as “The Florist,” the tough-guy boss to whom Doug and Jem report, and Mr. Postlethwaite knocks his scenes right out of the park. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Chris Cooper, who has one scene as Doug’s locked-up father.
Ben Affleck directs The Town with a steady hand. He gets some terrific performances out of his actors, and the film looks great. There are some intense, nail-biting action sequences that are put together with a down-to-earth, visceral feel. (No CGI to be found here, at least not to my eyes.) The sight of Doug’s gang wearing rubber nun masks over their faces is an iconic image for which this film will be deservedly remembered, and the film builds to a terrificly ingenious heist on a famous Boston landmark that, while perhaps stretching the bounds of one’s credulity a bit, provides an exciting (and suitably tragic) climax to the story.
Though this material is not of a level with Gone Baby Gone, Mr. Affleck continues to impress both as an actor and as a director. I look forward to seeing what he does next.