– Summary –
Director : Ben Affleck
Year Of Release : 2010
Principal Cast : Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, John Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively, Chris Cooper, Pete Posthlewaite, Titus Welliver.
Major Award Wins : Nil.
Approx Running Time : 125 Minutes (Theatrical Version)
Synopsis: Doug MacRay lives a life of crime in Charlestown, robbing banks with his best friend and associates. This life is put into perspective when he falls for a woman he took hostage in a previous escapade, and he realizes that escaping the fear of being caught is going to be harder than he thinks.
What we think : Superbly directed film, with some great performances (Renner especially – he was nominated for an Oscar in this role!) that delivers an exciting, human drama punctuated by survival-at-all-costs violence. Unflinching, realistic cops-and-robbers flick delivers a hefty one-two punch from Affleck, and lands both square on the jaw.
I was having a conversation the other night with my wife, the gorgeous Lisa T, about whether actors make good directors, or make better directors than director-directors: that is, those who have no experience in front of the camera as opposed to those who do. It’s an interesting question, to say the least, because there’s plenty of arguments either way: Clint Eastwood, of course, being perhaps the most prominent actor/director working today who’s just at ease in the eye of the lens as he is lining one up. Then again, there’s the visualist school of thought that says the actor should stay in front of the camera and let those who direct, direct. I’m ambivalent about the whole thing, mainly because I believe each person who steps behind the camera to direct a film bring their own vision, and ability, to the project. Be it the explosive chaos of Michael Bay, the unwavering elegance of Hitchcock, or the sentimentality of Spielberg, most directors are supreme visualists yet often leave the “acting” to the actors, making a film which is great to watch yet invariably lacking in “character” – mind you, this is a broad generalization and should in no way reflect my views on the three directors I just mentioned. Actor/directors, I think, are better at getting better performances out of their cast, leaving the visual bravado to the DOP and editorial staff. It’s not always the case, I know, and I think there’s a winning argument either way you turn, but looking at the last few years worth of actors trying their hands at directing, the case could be made that actors can get better performances out of other actors than a director with no acting experience at all. So we come to The Town, a film directed by co-Oscar winning screenwriter Ben Affleck, his second film after debuting with Gone Baby Gone. Affleck’s been around the industry for a while, as both a writer and (more prominently) as an actor, appearing in everything from Michael Bay’s Armageddon, Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, Kevin Smith’s Clerks II, Changing Lanes, Gigli (urghhh), Forces Of Nature (uurgghh), Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, Smokin’ Aces, and just to cap it all off, She’s Just Not That Into You (urrgh). J-Lo aside, is there anything this man hasn’t done?
Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his best friend Jem (Jeremy Renner) are criminals, robbing banks and armored vehicles with the rest of their gang: after one particular robbery they take a woman hostage, a woman who has the potential to identify them to the FBI. MacRay follows the woman, Claire (Rebecca Hall) to see if she could, and finds himself falling for her. Doug’s somewhat psycho friend Jem, who did a stretch in prison for a previous crime, behaves a little unhinged-like, and when he threatens to clean up after Doug, Doug realizes just how screwed up his life has become. Problem is, he can’t just walk away: various mob connections and his friendships within the Charleston, Boston, community prevent him from just leaving. So he must once more commit a robbery to score enough money to finally end his life of crime – only this time, the FBI are waiting for him, and Claire discovers just who he is.
I don’t want to spoil this film for those who haven’t seen it, and if you are among those who haven’t seen it, can I recommend you do so quickly. The Town is a film destined quite wrongly to become buried within the slurry of crime-themed films jostling for position on the shelf at your DVD rental, and before you’re caught trying to decide to watch whatever sci-fi opus hits the shelves next week. Character driven films, of which this is a prime example, seem to get left behind in the mass-market commercial world of film rentals and hyped Event cinema. until Oscar time comes along, when if a film has an explosion it’s automatically excluded from the ceremony. Well, it seems that way, doesn’t it? I began this review with comments about actor/directors, and how I believe they can produce a better performance from a fellow actor than a pure director can, and I think this is a film which could be held up as Exhibit A. Affleck, who commands the screen with a nuanced, subtle portrayal of a man caught between the life he wants to lead and the life he does lead, helms this slow-burn thriller with the dexterity of a seasoned directorial professional. It’s hard to believe that this is only his second “Directed By” credit, such is the films’ balance between character driven drama and outright action. The Town may not be the prettiest, most eye-candy kind of film this year, but it’s a workmanlike effort that delivers both a human drama and plenty of thrills. Affleck drew an Oscar nominated performance from co-star Jeremy Renner, who had found himself on the Oscar carpet the year prior after being nominated for Best Actor (in The Hurt Locker), and gave us an affecting performance from Rebecca Hall as MacRay’s love interest Claire – Hall appeared in The Prestige, Frost/Nixon, Dorian Grey and Vicky Cristina Barcelona: her star is on the rise, I’d suspect, after a convincing portrayal of an innocent woman drawn into the darkness of Boston’s underworld.
Where the film draws its strength is in its characters: these people are the real, breathing, bleeding street folks of Charlestown, a suburb of Boston where, according to the title cards at the commencement of the film, criminals are bred and law seems insipid. Affleck’s portrayal of Charlestown seems much like a scaled down version of the Bronx, a wild-west place where after-dark strolling is suicidal and crime gangs rule the streets. I’ve been assured this isn’t exactly the case, as there seem to be plenty of good, law abiding citizens currently domiciled in Charlestown, but this film isn’t about them. It’s about the underbelly. MacRay is a man who’s starting to see his life slip away in a spray of bullets and dodging cops: and he hates it. His life exists in fear and terrorizing others, at the expense of his own humanity and soul. His attraction to Claire, the manager of a bank he robs and who his gang takes hostage, is pretty evident; she leads a life he wants, with no running from the cops or waiting to see which upstart crime-gang he has to put down, and he reaches out to be a part of it. It is, frankly, a soul defining change of character for him, and it sets him on the path to restitution, if only he didn’t keep being dragged back into things by his world. Doug’s world is drugs, money and robbery, with his future bleak indeed. The needle in his arm, metaphorically speaking, keeping him hooked on this crime-drug, is his friend Jem, a man who uses his recent prison stretch as a guilt trip to keep Doug onside. Jeremy Renner nails the part of Jem, the slightly unhinged and altogether warped Charlestown-ite who’s love for violence is only barely superseded by his love for Doug. Their connection, their history, is a steep hill for Doug to overcome in order to let go of his life, and the bulk of the film sees him fighting, initially with a large degree of guilty betrayal, against this history.
John Hamm (Mad Men), as well as off-sider Titus Welliver (seen here in Australia on TV show The Good Wife), are solid as the FBI agents pursuing MacRay and his gang, although they’re perhaps the least developed of all those appearing in the film. Hamm is square jawed and righteous, perfect for the cliched Federal agent, giving the required performance for a man obsessed with the chase and capture, yet always one step behind. I think, if there’s any real weakness with Affleck’s screenplay here (yes, he co-wrote the script as well!) it’s with John Law. But the focus isn’t on this aspect of the story, it’s on the relationships MacRay has with his friends, his girl, and the city in which he lives. Blake Lively, who audiences saw in Gossip Girl and those godawful Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants films (yes, I’ve seen them, and don’t bloody ask, okay?) makes a good go of the skanky former girlfriend of MacRay, although she is outclassed as an actress by those around her. That’s not to say she’s bad, not at all. It’s just that she’s on screen with some very, very good talent, and she’s barley able to keep up.
While the film is primarily a character driven piece, there are a number of set-piece action sequences to keep the thrills in the film bubbling away. The opening bank robbery sequence, directed with remarkable restraint by Affleck, followed mid-way through the film by a cool car chase and shoot out, and culminating in a massive police stand-off at Fenway Park (home to the Boston Redsox), are all given a sparkling sense of urgency by the deft hands of DOP Robert Elswitt, who keeps the restraint on nice and tight with both the editing and the minimal use of multi-angle glory shots. It’s the kind of format audiences often wish Michael Bay would learn. There’s a grounded realism here, the kind of style often missing from mainstream action films: although at one stage a car does blow up with only a bit of fuel and a cigarette lighter – a moment which does tend to ruin the urban flavor of what is an otherwise straightforward action sensibility. The action, while I will praise it for being quite tense and exciting, isn’t as slick as higher profile films (and feels like it owes a lot to Michael Mann’s Heat), I guess, which is a result of Affleck perhaps being more attuned to the characters as opposed to the action – this is in no way a bad thing, but his eye for action isn’t as sweet as his eye for character. The balance between the two has swung in favor of the characters.
If I had a problem with The Town, it’s that I wasn’t sure why I should be liking the people I was watching. Almost nobody outside of Claire and Doug had any real redeeming qualities, even the FBI agents following them. The script tended to favor the soft-filter love story as a traditional Hollywood romance, unlikely as this pairing was ever going to be, and at times I think the behavior of Claire, once she discovered who Doug actually was and what he did, tended to get a little strange for a woman so traumatized as she was, and this diluted some of the great character development from earlier in the film. Chris Cooper barely appeared before he left again, never to be seen again, and some of the background characters in Doug’s life were underwritten, making empathy for his choice between Jem and Claire more difficult for the audience to understand. Small things that mattered, even though they were lost in the general style and flavor the film gave out.
I really liked The Town a lot: that much is obvious. It’s a solid, absorbing thriller with plenty of great moments of character for the ensemble cast – led by a restrained Ben Affleck. The human side of the drama is what draws you in, punctuated by moments of violence and desperation. I don’t think, though, that the re-watch factor will be high for this flick from more generic audiences, but those who favor character over overblown action histrionics will find plenty to devour within the framework of Affleck’s piece here. Sharply written, superbly acted by Affleck, Renner and Hall, and with a shadowy, pulp-polish and independent-film sheen, The Town is essential viewing for those who seek quality entertainment.