The Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, a series of pre-title cards inform us, is a fundamentally miserable but also beloved place, a rough-and-tumble environment where bank robbery has become a cottage industry. The Town is the story of bank robbers, and of the dilemma experienced by the people — Townies, they’re called, affectionately and not-so — who dwell in a place they love, and from which they’re desperate to escape.
Ben Affleck cast himself in the lead of this, his sophomore directorial effort, and that decision brings an odd self-consciousness to the picture. We spend a lot of time looking at Affleck in close-up, his perpetually scruffy jaw denoting a preponderance of testosterone, his increasingly furrowed brow suggesting the depth of feeling and living behind all those whiskers and questioning whether it’s possible for a man to really change. There are moments when the picture starts to feel a little narcissistic, not just because Affleck has elected to direct his own mug up there on screen, bigger than life, but because his character is expected to bear such a burden. Doug MacRay is a good man who’s gotten into some bad business, he’s a helpless romantic who kidnapped and terrorized the object of his affections, he’s a working-class mope struggling mightily to elevate himself above his human condition. Simply put, he’s given himself an awful lot of water to carry, and I kept wondering what fresh perspective another actor might have brought to Affleck’s conception of the character.
For Affleck, these days, being a director is enough. His debut film as director, Gone Baby Gone, was a fairly terrific piece of work, so unpretentious that even its more lurid and least probable bits snuck up on me and caught me gasping in mild amazement. As a follow-up, The Town is even more assured in important ways. Affleck seems to retain great skill with actors, for instance, drawing sock-knocking performances out of everyone from The Hurt Locker‘s Jeremy Renner, playing his best friend Jem, to Blake freaking Lively, as Jem’s sister (and Doug’s girlfriend) Krista. His skill with shooting on location is undiluted, with The Town making the most of settings ranging from a tiny waterfront community garden to the usually unseen interiors of Fenway Park. And he can even helm an action scene with aplomb – The Town has showcase heist sequences and car chases that avoid the usual pitfalls of over-the-top silliness and/or incoherence. Give the second unit credit, of course, but there are numerous big-name directors who can’t pull together this kind of action scene to save their lives, and Affleck seems to have it down.
What hobbles The Town isn’t its thriller storyline, which is sterling. Doug and his childhood buddy Jem are part of a tiny, closely-knit gang that knocks over banks, armored cars, and local businesses on the orders of florist Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), a local crime boss who keeps his minions in line through intelligence and serious intimidation. Discovering a key pattern in the timing of the heists, an FBI team led by a guy who looks just like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is closing in. Affleck yearns to leave the life and escape to Florida, wads of cash in hand, but Renner treats his ambitions as a rank betrayal. As the film enters its third act, One More Job looms ominously on the horizon. Sure, it’s a clichéfest, but in good ways. You actually look forward to the plot taking each of its inevitably proscribed turns, partly because you know another big exciting set piece is around the corner, and partly because it’s just such a pleasure to watch this group of actors do their thing.
The Town does right by all its main characters save one. That would be Claire (a delicate Rebecca Hall), the shaky, traumatized bank manager who was held hostage as the gang made its escape from the spectacular hold-up that opened the film. She’s the love interest. Here’s how it goes down: Jem is spooked to learn that Claire actually lives in Charlestown, and decides the gang should take care of her lest she somehow ID one of them. Dismayed by Jem’s bloodlust, Doug convinces him to back off and let him try to figure out what she knows. When they meet, Doug falls in love with her because, well, she’s a very pretty girl — and maybe those pangs of guilt he feels after putting her through hell have something to do with his affection for her, too. Claire falls for Doug because — well, you see, there’s the part that’s not so clear, although it must have to do with the fact that this stranger in her life seems so oddly well equipped to anticipate and help her deal with the particular trauma she suffered.
The Town is based on a novel, Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, and it’s possible that the relationship between Claire and Doug is elucidated there with heartbreaking psychological clarity. But it sure ain’t on the screen here. In fact, the romantic potential of their initial meeting over Claire’s laundry is undermined by the fact that Affleck comes off as the creepiest guy in the wash-o-mat. (He walks in off the street, plops himself down in a plastic chair, and proceeds to glower over a magazine like a thug in a cheap pulp novel.) Even if you accept their relationship as an irrational, unconscious manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome (or reverse Stockholm Syndrome, or something), Claire is a paper-thin character and serves precious little purpose in the movie but to give Doug and Jem something to fight about and to catalyze Doug’s longing for an Amtrak ticket outta that burg. Turns out she’s not even necessary for that. Claire disappears from the screen almost entirely during the film’s increasingly tense third act, as tensions develop elsewhere in Doug’s life, the absent Krista resurfaces, and the film improves considerably.
Other than the risible romantic elements, Affleck has a problem here with a certain fussiness to his directorial style. If he can keep from overthinking a shot, he can do terrific work behind the camera. I loved that, during the climactic scene set indoors and behind the scenes at Fenway Park, you only realize that the film crew is shooting on location at the actual ballpark when you glimpse a corner of the baseball diamond through a half-open doorway as the camera glides past. The location is undersold, which is nice. Another shot, captured from a distance with a long lens that frames Doug and Jem in conversation entirely too conspicuously against the patchwork of gravestones visible behind them, is way too on-the-nose.
And then there’s the scene where Jem, arriving unannounced, meets Claire for the first time. Doug knows that Jem bears a tattoo on the back of his neck that Claire can recognize, and the audience knows it too. As the scene unfolds, Jem a bundle of rough-hewn charm, Doug just a pile of agita on his folding chair, the various camera angles make it clear, repeatedly, that she almost — but not quite — has a clear line of sight to that identifying mark. Because the camera doesn’t draw attention to it, the tattoo ends up dancing around the edges of the frame, generating the kind of suspense that could power a Hitchcock movie in miniature. It’s a tense, playful scene, at least until it trips all over itself with a shot that actually rack-focuses from Jem’s tattoo to Doug’s constipated facial expression, just in case anybody in the audience had missed the relationship between them. That moment is so unnecessary — such a buzzkill! — that I wanted to blame cinematographer Robert Elswit for executing it, editor Dylan Tichenor for cutting it into the scene, and Affleck for approving its use.
Still, beyond all its shortcomings, The Town is a pretty good time. If you like this kind of thing — working-class crime drama with explosive bursts of gunfire and little else on its mind but loyalty and honor among big lugs — odds are this is the kind of thing you like. It remains to be seen whether Affleck, skating on another crop of warm reviews, will endeavor to move his next film beyond the locale of Boston or the genre of crime drama. If he doesn’t settle into too comfortable a groove, he may yet have some big surprises up his sleeve.