The Town serves as a direct competition between Ben Affleck, actor, and Ben Affleck, director, in a bid to determine which of the two stands out as the dominant personality. Anyone who saw 2007’s Gone Baby Gone already can guess that the latter incarnation of the Cambridge-born Affleck emerges victorious, and if anything, The Town should serve as an indication that Affleck has legitimately found new life behind the camera rather than in front of it. Years from now, when we’re discussing great, gritty, contemporary “real life” crime dramas, The Town may only be brought up in passing– it’s easily overshadowed by both Affleck’s directorial debut as well as 2006’s The Departed, with which the film shares more common ancestry– but it will certainly be remembered as a film replete with cliches and genre tropes that manages to rise above all of them thanks to the vision and skill of its director.
Affleck plays Doug McRay, a career criminal who along with a crew of his childhood friends masterminds and executes perfect and precise bank robberies all over Boston. (The film attempts to establish Boston as the bank robbery capital of the world; a cursory glance proves the statistics to be grossly exaggerated, though somewhat rooted in the neighborhood of Charlestown’s past history as the borough of choice for Boston’s criminal element.) The Town begins as the four men carry out one such heist, and from there tracks two different plot points as the four thieves evade identification and capture at the hands of dogged FBI agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm) while McRay pursues an unexpected relationship with Claire, the bank manager he holds at gunpoint in the film’s opening (Rebecca Hall), after growing attached to her in the wake of his crime.
From the above synopsis alone a number of attributes typical to the genre can be plainly seen: The lead role is a criminal with a heart of gold who through chance has a revelation that leads him to strive to find a way out of his circumstances to make something better for himself. He leads a double life, one as a wanted man and one as an everyman; the latter facade is meant to hide the truth of himself from someone he grows to care about. Meanwhile, the protagonist is hunted down relentlessly by a man of the law who with each encounter comes closer and closer to exposing our hero for who he truly is and bringing him to justice. Top it all off with conflict over the bonds formed between the hero and his friends, and serve warm. Literally, every well-tread idea and detail that one could derive from other films of its ilk can be found flowing throughout the veins of The Town; there’s nothing here that could in good conscience be described as “new”.
Frankly, this un-newness will inevitably draw comparisons between The Town and the aforementioned new gold standard for big city crime dramas, The Departed, which apart from the cat-and-mouse between police and gang moles certainly could be viewed as a precursor to Affleck’s sophomore effort. Of course, the similarities really shine through once the details and the particulars of both films are boiled away and we’re left with bare bones. Which is to say that to truly compare them, or even to criticize The Town‘s embracing of those bits and pieces that make crime films what they are, is somewhat unfair and overlooks the film’s finer virtues and merits. Sure, Affleck isn’t reinventing the wheel. Sure, his film is structurally unoriginal. But it’s the way he treats these popular and well-worn ingredients that makes his picture worthy of praise.
Any sense of incredulity or trace of skepticism about Affleck’s position as director likely melted away in the wake of Gone Baby Gone, the question of whether he had the skills to run the whole production having been answered and subsequently giving way to speculation over whether he could pull off the same trick twice. The Town quite soundly assuages any such concerns through an increased confidence in Affleck’s directing thanks to the runaway success of his debut; for its faults (and there are a few, none of which I’d identify as its borrowed story and plot), this is a film anchored with a very fine balance between a number of different narrative thread that could easily have thrown the entire movie off course and sent it careening into the realms of the erroneous. Subplot after subplot is introduced– Doug may or may not be the father of Jem’s (Jeremy Renner) niece, questions about the disappearance of Doug’s mother are raised and answered– and none of them gets fleshed out enough to really feel critical to the completion of the over-arching story, but also none of them is treated to sloppily that that primary arc suffers for it.
Arguably, a great director would have been wise enough to have trimmed the fattier elements from the film in the first place, and while that’s true Affleck certainly displays a strong skill set as a filmmaker by preventing the excess from weighing down the points that truly matter. Of course, with all that said The Town could easily have benefited either from judicious editing either at the script-writing stage or in the cutting room, excising the less essential pieces of the film in order to place sustained emphasis on Doug’s struggle to keep up in both his professional and personal life as he tries to find a way out of the former and improve the latter.
In between the events that fill out the framework of the picture, Affleck deftly handles the execution of moments both big and small. His eye switches back and forth between sweeping over the cityscape to capture the action and setting, and honing in on the character moments that occur in the quieter stretches of the story. It’s hard to say whether The Town best portrays those pieces of character development or the tight, economic car chases and shoot-outs (which easily constitute some of the best of the year), so take your pick between the two– you won’t be disappointed either way. Days after seeing the film I’m having a hard time deciding which aspect impressed me more, though I find myself leaning more towards the efforts of the excellent cast. Everyone here, from Renner to Hamm, pulls their weight and then some– even Affleck shows that yes, he can act when he’s loosened up and comfortable and when he doesn’t try too hard. He makes Doug compelling by giving him both humanity, which separates him from his friends (who are more accepting of their shares status as career bank robbers), and a sharp edge, which places a divide between him and characters on the right side of the law, such as Hall and Hamm. Unfortunately, the former isn’t given much to do aside from react to things, but Hall does admirably with a relatively non-essential character. Hamm, on the other hand, begins the film somewhat clumsily (which may be the point) and over time develops Frawley into a genuinely intimidating force of black and white justice. He becomes magnetic, stealing attention in every scene he appears in; after a point his only match is the manic intensity of Jeremy Renner, playing Doug’s loose cannon right-hand man.
Overall, The Town is a well acted and better directed movie and an excellent second entry from Affleck. Scars aside, this film more than ably shows his worth as a director and should send a strong message to him to consider taking on directing gigs full time. Another director might have let the whole story sink thanks to the weaknesses in the script; that Affleck didn’t says something very positive about his talents. At the same time those weaknesses should never have come into the story in the first place, and when all is said and done there’s very little that the movie says that other, better crime films haven’t been through already. Even if the movie has precious little to talk about, maybe a strong message indicating Affleck’s viability as a director is more than enough.