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 received, I walked away in the end feeling the characters and story had never come to three dimensional life.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that the movie’s plot is much more familiar this time around than in Affleck’s very fine directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. We have seen the plot of the criminal wanting to get out after one final job and the anti-hero who finds unexpected love that compels to break out of his old ways. Thus, the story requires more life breathed into it to overcome its familiarity 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 produces more bank robbers than any other town in the world. The film’s opening scene is a bank heist executed by Douglas McRay (Ben Affleck) and his gang including James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Albert “Gloansy” Magloan (Slaine) and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke). They hold the bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) at gunpoint to open the vault, then briefly take her hostage blindfolded amidst their getaway.
Though unharmed, Claire, who is not a native of Charlestown, is traumatized by the experience. An FBI agent, Adam Brawley (Jon Hamm from TV’s Mad Men) interviews her to learn what she remembers. She remembers nothing, as the gang wore masked disguises and she had been blindfolded when taken hostage.
However, Claire live quite nearby the gang’s digs, and they are anxious she might recognize them sooner or later, particularly James, who shows some signs of sociopathic tendencies. With James seeming to suggest he should pay her a visit and most likely kill her, the more reasonable Doug decides to step in to make sure she cannot identify them. Introducing himself to her at a Laundromat, and against expectations, he gradually begins to fall for Claire, all while FBI agent Brawley is closing in to nab Doug and his gang.
The relationship between Doug and Claire forms 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 father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), in jail for a past 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. Passion is particularly necessary, given the real 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; we seem to leave conversations just as they begin to sound interesting.
Also curiously missing in The Town, especially compared to Gone Baby Gone, are 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 included scenes of Doug’s inner brooding in the turmoil.
Yes, the homegrown factors holding him back to his criminal ways 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 mother who has a past with Affleck’s Doug 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 see why Doug would 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, and the more technical demands of 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, knows how to hone in close to the action and build a real oppressive feel, and avoid glamorizing the resultant bloody violence. I only wish the same care and attention had been given to the overall story.
So the movie, I think, is a slight come-down for Affleck after Gone Baby Gone but he still shows real promise of a good directorial career ahead of him. He knows how to get good performances out of his cast and shows the technical facility to build individual scenes. If he can learn 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.
Bottom line: Close but no cigar.