Be advised this review contains spoilers.
With the nomination of Jeremy Renner for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Town, a film that has had a somewhat mixed critical reception, I thought it was time to take another look at the film in general and Renner’s performance in particular. On first viewing, I had found the it a fairly conventional rehash of familiar film tropes. It was essentially a version of the bank heist film with a misunderstood criminal who wanted to escape from his life of crime. And while some of the action pushed the limits of plausibility, the film managed enough gritty realism to create that willing suspension of disbelief that is essence of verisimilitude. In the end, it was a good enough film, not great, but not terrible.
A second viewing reinforced this first impression, but it also raised some interesting questions about what seems to be the film’s confused attitude to criminals and their brutish behavior. The clearest illustration of this is in Ben Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay. MacRay, a ‘townie’ who had had a shot at professional hockey and screwed it up, is the leader of his four-man heist gang. He is smart and he is careful. He comes from a broken home: his mother left; his father is in prison. He was raised in the kind of environment that encouraged criminality and demanded honor among thieves. It was a savage world in which brutality was the key to survival. All of this is made clear as part of the character’s back story as well as reinforced by his behavior in the film, and provides some explanation, if not justification, for the way he is now living his life.
When the film begins, MacRay and his crew are engaged in a bank robbery. It is only the latest in a series of heists, which would seem to amount to something of a major crime wave. In the course of the robbery they take a female hostage, with whom, after some complications not only does he fall in love, but whose love seems to change him. What it is that attracts her, an educated bank manager to this obvious hoodlum, is left to the viewer’s imagination. Of course there is no accounting for women’s taste in men, and of course the fact that she, a ‘nice’ girl, loves him is another signifier of the characters worth, a worth, given his actions in the film, one has to wonder if he deserves.
He decides it is time to give up the criminal life, but just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in again. He owes it to his buddies. He has to protect his new girlfriend from the threats of the evil Pete Postlethwaite. Once you’re in the ‘life,’ it is next to impossible to get out. All of this goes a long way to creating questionable sympathy for the character, and it is questionable. He is after all a criminal. He never has any qualms about hurting innocent bystanders when they run from the police in some really elaborate car chases. He has no trouble firing automatic weapons into crowds of people. This is not a nice guy. There may be reasons why he is not a nice guy, but there is no question he is not a nice guy, and it seems wrong to create empathy for him.
The contrast between Affleck’s conflicted MacRay, Renner’s ‘mad dog’ portrayal of his buddy in crime James Coughlin only serves to reinforce these misplaced feelings. Coughlin is a vicious killer with a hair-trigger temper much in the tradition of Sonny Corleone or even Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito. Like them, he acts instinctively, little thinking or caring about the consequences of his actions. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Renner’s performance is nuanced enough to deserve an award (he is after all is said and done a hell of a long shot), he has created a character that makes Affleck’s MacRay look like an angel in comparison. By the way, his last sip at the soda container, before he staggers out into a police barrage is classic, although it does put me in mind of James Cagney in White Heat.
In the end even if you can buy the idea of a bunch of Boston boys pulling the crime of the century against the sainted Red Sox, you have to wonder about the moral posture that seems to justify at least one of them from getting away with it. I recognize that in real life bad guys don’t always get punished. But not punishing them is not quite the same thing as suggesting their rehabilitation by anonymously using their ill gotten gains to refurbish a hockey rink for neighborhood kids, leaving the “hero” lounging on a semi-tropical beach staring out at the ocean with life (and presumably love) all before him.