The Town

September, 2010, Thriller


Looking back over Ben Affleck’s career of the last half-dozen years or  so, how to explain the metamorphosis from the mediocre films he was grinding out at that time to his success with The Town? His latest is a blistering heist film which catapults the 38 year-old writer/actor/director onto the short list of filmmakers who can deliver high-grade commercial Hollywood films.  With its pulsating action segments, gritty but apt working class dialogue and the consistently fine level of acting from every member  of the cast (not least Affleck himself) The Town heralds  the arrival  of  a seasoned  professional as  adept  behind  the camera as he is in front of it. This film is already a critical success and will go on to be a financial one as well.


Affleck plays Doug MacRay, leader of a 4-man team which provides the muscle and firepower for “Fergie” Colm, who masterminds professional bank & armored car robberies in Charlestown, a blue collar neighborhood in South Boston.  Jimmy Coughlin, (Jeremy Renner) Doug’s lieutenant, is an incendiary thug in whose household Doug was raised after his father was sent to prison.  In the claustrophobic climate of the career-criminal families  in which they were raised, Doug,  Jimmy and their accomplices face the constant  prospect  of capture and  jail terms  with laconic resignation,  as  if  the future provided no other options.


During  one especially  violent bank job, assistant manager Clair Keesey (Rebecca Hall) is taken  hostage and emerges  from her brief captivity with a  piece of information which could provide  the F.B.I. with a possible  lead  on Jimmy’s identity. Fearing what Jimmy might do to the girl if he learned of his vulnerability, Doug surreptitiously arranges a meeting with Clair and finds himself attracted to her quiet demeanor and sense of decency. But the pull of Fergie’s lucrative “jobs”, Doug’s ties to his close-knit felonious squad and an encroaching F.B.I. investigation which threatens to destroy them all make Clair’s increasing attraction a vulnerability Doug can ill afford…


Affleck and fellow screenwriter Peter Craig adapted The Town from Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves” and the results bear favorable comparison to Clint Eastwood’s much-heralded Mystic River, which also explored the propensity for violence in the criminal subculture of Boston’s working class neighborhoods. Crain and Affleck sprinkle ample amounts of profanity and Irish-American machismo in their dialogue and the results provide a toxic portrait of cynicism and resignation.


The Town is Affleck’s sophomore entry in the directorial category; three years ago he made his debut with Gone Baby Gone, the story of a kidnapping also set in Boston. While that film had a handful of interesting characters and a fine sense of location, its storyline and dialogue offered no indication of Affleck’s true potential.  In The Town, cinematographer Robert Elswit (Salt, Duplicity, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton) employs sweeping ariel shots of Boston, contrasting the seemingly limitless expanse of the entire city with the claustrophobically narrow streets where the film’s crimes take place. In passing, Elswit’s cameras provide visual evidence of neighborhood decay that compliments the moral vacuity of The Town’s career criminals; faded bar signs, the peeling paint on clabbered three-story walk-ups, a long-abused and now abandoned ice-skating rink; each providing mute testimony to the structural decay which surrounds Doug and his aimless, violence-prone boyhood chums, long past puberty, yet still frighteningly shy of real adulthood.  


 As Jimmy, Renner displays the same intensity he offered in his drunk-on-courage bomb demolition expert in last year’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, but the melodramatic nature of The Town doesn’t afford this gifted actor the opportunity to flesh out his character with sufficient nuance. That’s not the case with Affleck’s interpretation of Doug however - - with a softly modulated voice, deprecating manner and halting, side-long glances, Affleck imbues MacRay with a plausible vulnerability. That neatly heightens the dramatic tension of the storyline especially in the final reel, where an explosively propulsive shoot-out with the feds offers a satisfying concoction of vengeance, vindication just the right touch of “what might have been”.  Given the scope, frequency and range of Doug’s felonious activities, the audience shouldn’t be pulling for him at all, yet Affleck, abetted by Hall’s quietly compelling performance as Clair, makes the climax of this movie far more compelling than anyone has a right to expect.   Affleck’s career at this point has provided more opportunity for beefcake than serious acting (his role as George Reeves in Hollywoodland notwithstanding) but his portrait of a lonely gangster whose traumatic childhood masks a winsome vulnerability warrants serious consideration come next year’s Oscar nominations.

In the meantime, don’t pass up this highly polished, furiously compelling action film, perhaps the best example of his genre we’re likely to see all year.



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