The Town (review)

Going to Town

Who’da thunk Ben Affleck would turn out to be one of the most enthralling American film directors of the early 21st century? Because now, with The Town, we have proof positive that his first film, the astonishing Gone Baby Gone, was no fluke. Affleck is, before our very eyes, morphing into a filmmaker who could do for Boston what Martin Scorsese did for New York in the 1970s: peel away the veneer of polite civilization to reveal the ugly underbelly, a world in which honor and horror sit side by side, in which the cops and the criminals are their own worst enemies even as they battle one another, a place from which escape is almost impossible. Affleck turns the familiar here — this is yet another one-last-heist flick, and exists deep within the overpopulated species of urban crime movies — into something fresh and exciting and deeply suspenseful and wholly beguiling. There isn’t a single misstep in this film. The Town is enormously entertaining, a superb example of the best kind of genre filmmaking. I complain a lot about studio films, but when Hollywood gets it right, there’s no kind of film that I find more viscerally thrilling. The Town gets it absolutely, pitch-perfect right.
I’ve said this before, about how Affleck captured Boston in Gone Baby Gone, but it’s worth repeating: Scorsese did not get working class Boston in The Departed the way Affleck gets it; Clint Eastwood did not get working-class Boston in Mystic River the way Affleck gets it. I thought those directors had done just fine, until Affleck showed me how it’s done with Gone… and he does so again here, perhaps with an even sweeter coarse panache than he did with his first feature. The Town reminded me not so much of those other Boston flicks — not even Affleck’s own previous one — but of gritty British urban cinema. It always drives me crazy to see a film set in Glasgow, one in which everyone is speaking English, distracting its audience with subtitles, because of the assumption that the thick accents and heavy slang would be nigh on impenetrable to an outsider. The Town is like that… without the subtitles. Affleck, thrillingly, doesn’t care if some of his dialogue gets lost in the dense chatter of blue-collar Irish-American Charlestown: the sense of what is going on is perfectly clear, and we are indeed outsiders looking in on an insular community.

Charlestown is a place where — we are informed, though it may be nothing but appealing hoo-ha — the art of bank robbery is passed down from father to son, the most lucrative vocation in the neighborhood. And so we meet Doug MacRay (Affleck: Extract, State of Play), whose father (Chris Cooper: Remember Me, Where the Wild Things Are) will not leave prison except in a coffin; Doug leads a victorious band of thieves, chief among whom is his hothead “brother,” James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner: The Hurt Locker, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). In their latest heist, which opens the film, Doug “meets” bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall: Frost/Nixon, Vicky Cristina Barcelona); it’s clear, even from the other side of the full-face mask he’s wearing, that he’s smitten with her upon first glance. Later, he will orchestrate a “chance” meeting with her — she also lives in Charlestown, a yuppie infiltrator — and woo her, quite successfully. How long will it be until she discovers the truth about him? Affleck — who also wrote the script, with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves, by Chuck Hogan [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — mines lots of delicious suspense from that question. Ditto the level of suspense to be had from the question: How long before the powderkeg that is James Coughlin goes off?

Nothing follows quite the most predictable path, especially not the cat-and-mouse game MacRay plays (though he doesn’t realize at first that he is playing) with FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm: The A-Team, Shrek Forever After). The dynamic here is particularly pleasing, in a sort of awful, heading-for-disaster way, as Frawley backs MacRay into a corner from which MacRay can have no escape, even when — we glean from the undercurrent of how events transpire — he might have leapt at what Frawley could have offered him. There may be right and wrong in a legal sense at play in The Town, but there’s not much on a real-world interpersonal level: because Frawley wants to work on a no-compromises, black-and-white level, he leaves himself no room to maneuver, and never realizes that MacRay might have welcomed some such room. And MacRay is not stupid: you can’t have a successful career as a robber of banks and armored cars if you’re stupid or simple. Perhaps one of the most thrilling aspects of The Town is that the two central protagonists never appreciate the complications and conundrums of their showdown.

It’s yet another thing Affleck pulls off smartly in this terrifically intense film. On top of the iconography of Boston. And the train-wreck authenticity of Doug’s drug-addicted ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively [The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, Accepted], who suddenly shows real promise for grownup roles). And the elegant command of action sequences, such as the car chase through narrow North End streets that feels downright European in its execution. These aren’t pleasant people, not a one of them, but they are, in Affleck’s capable hands, endlessly intriguing.

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