Former Dallas Morning News movie critic, neighborhood resident and friend of the Advocate Gary Dowell reviews the new Ben Affleck movie, The Town. If we are nice to him, Gary — who’s not one of those snotty-and-hates-everything types — might even bring us weekly reviews, which I look forward to immensely.
The Town opens Friday — not sure where it’s showing yet, but I’ll update this post once theater listings are out.The reinvention of Ben Affleck continues unabated with this release of the screenwriter/actor-turned director’s hardboiled crime drama The Town. The titular town is Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, a blue-collar district with the dubious distinction of being the world capital of bank and armored car robberies, a factoid flashed on the screen in the form of quotations expressing a mixture of pride and bitterness before seguing into voiceover narration by Doug MacRay (Affleck), as he sets the stage for one such robbery. Within it’s first five minutes, Affleck has deftly pulled us into a heady modern pulp drama.
The plot is conventional, especially when compared to the rough, precarious moral terrain of his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007). MacRay is that quintessential anti-hero, the criminal looking for one last job that will let him escape from his own personal hell; in this case, the suffocating, dead-end neighborhood and the crushing memories that it holds.
He’s tied down by his associates: local crimelord Fergus (a suitably leathery Pete Postlethwaite), who keeps MacRay in something approaching indentured servitude; MacRay’s right-hand man, Jem (Jeremy Renner), a loose cannon and borderline psychopath who did nine years in prison for his friend and would see his leaving as a betrayal; and Jem’s sister Krista (Blake Lively), MacRay’s on again-off again girlfriend who sees him as an exit strategy of her own. MacRay and his crew take a bank manager named Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage during that opening robbery, and release her once their getaway is ensured. It transpires that she lives a mere four blocks from their neighborhood, a fact that could pose disastrous for the group should she ever somehow recognize one of them. MacRay promises to handle the situation; he instead falls for her, setting up a catastrophic chain of events.
It’s a plot that could be easily dismissed as typical Hollywood fare, but Affleck wisely keeps it gritty and unsentimental, sacrificing glamour in favor of a rude world encased in concrete and chainlink fences. The characters are rendered as products of this bleak urban environment, hardened by violence, disappointment, failure, and fractured families. MacRay’s mother walked out on the family when he was a boy (her final fate is crueler to him when it is later revealed) and his father (a riveting cameo by Chris Cooper) is a former bank robber living out the rest of his life in prison. Jem and Krista’s father was killed in prison and their mother died of HIV.
Affleck devotes as much time to his actors as he does his action scenes (which are tense, exciting, and straight from the Michael Mann school of shoot-outs and car chases), wringing out taut performances and hitting all the right notes. As a leading man, he’s lost the smugness of his early years. Renner radiates danger in every scene, constantly projecting a potential eruption of hair-trigger violence viewers on edge. A virtually unrecognizable Lively makes us forget her Gossip Girl roots, and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and veteran character actor Titus Welliver balance the equation as the ubiquitous obsessed Feds.
Though he’s only a sophomore director, Affleck is a film industry veteran at this point, and he’s obviously been taking notes; in lesser hands The Town would have collapsed in a heap of melodrama. Instead, it’s one of the most gripping films in an otherwise bland movie year. —Gary Dowell