The Town (Affleck, 2010)
IMDB Summary: As he plans his next job, a longtime thief tries to balance his feelings for a bank manager connected to one of his earlier heists, as well as the FBI agent looking to bring him and his crew down.
The Town is a largely paint-by-numbers heist drama featuring mostly archetypal characters and predictable storylines; but you should see it. Despite its weaknesses, The Town is an exciting and entertaining heist thriller that makes up for its limitations. It features strong acting, character dynamics that enhance the archetypes and especially Ben Affleck’s directing, which is tense and infused with an understanding of his environment and an energy that carries itself throughout.
Affleck wonderfully captures the inescapability of community very well, one of the film’s larger themes. The title card at the beginning tells that Charlestown has produced more robbers than any other American city. The main characters have grown up in a neighborhood where a criminal way of life has already been all but etched in stone by previous generations. The title card tells us what to expect from these characters just as they were told what was expected of them. Doug (Ben Affleck) certainly cherishes his upbringing in Charlestown culture but the robberies seem like never ending cycles that are just as ritualistically motivated as monetarily. Meeting Claire (Rebecca Hall) allows him to see his life from a new perspective and what he might want from it. The authenticity Affleck brings to the story enhances our understanding of Doug’s need to defend his town and his struggle to escape it. There was never any doubt that the director would have any trouble grasping the specificity of Boston and he does not disappoint. He uses plenty of establishing shots ranging from glimpses of small shops to overhead shots that further place the audience in a very real and authentic feeling environment.
Unfortunately, Boston and the Charlestown neighborhood are more developed than any of the film’s actual characters. Each main character functions as an archetype and our understanding of the environment serves somewhat as a substitute for well-rounded characters. Doug is the man caught between his loyalty to the people and town that he grew up with and his desire for something different. Jem (Jeremy Renner) has completely fused and embraced his upbringing to a fault; he knows nothing else and craves for opportunities to take things too far. Claire (Rebecca Hall) is shown to be mainly sympathetic and likable. FBI Special Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) wants to do everything he can to make a dent in Charlestown’s crime problem. Finally, we have Krista (Blake Lively) who we learn little about and is discarded by the film in the same way Doug himself uses and discards her. Even though these characters are certainly not entirely flat, they are not as well-developed as we would like and can never transcend the script’s clearly assigned roles for each.
Thankfully, much of the acting makes up for the weaker characterization. Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively are the two standouts from the ensemble, bringing out more to their characters than what is written. Renner played a similarly reckless character in The Hurt Locker and somehow the two performances and characters have nothing in common. Renner’s face hints at something fiercely primal lurking within Jem itching to get out, giving his unwavering determination to risk himself a distinct flavor. Lively triumphs with very little screen time by ruthlessly inhabiting Krista, making sure she has an impact with only a handful of scenes. Since the film only needs her character so she can make one decision in the third act, she is unfortunately a mere plot device than anything else. Lively makes sure that we get a sense of Krista on her own terms despite the way the script uses her. Jon Hamm does what he can with his material, or lack thereof, by making the film’s weakest scenes more interesting because of his presence and conviction. Rebecca Hall also does a dependably nice job, making Claire someone we wish was not dragged into the situations she finds herself in. However, the latter half of the film has her making decisions the script needs her to, making her hard to connect with. This is no fault of Hall’s. Chris Cooper can not be forgotten, who memorably makes his mark in only one scene.
Affleck’s performance is certainly not bad but he fails to truly connect with the audience. He brings out our sympathy for Doug but as a protagonist it is his dynamics with other characters that are much more interesting than Doug himself. Where the acting made up for the writing in other cases, here, the writing and the other actors help make up for Affleck’s inabilities to connect with the audience on his own. Not only does Doug get the best dialogue in the film, particularly a wonderful monologue about his childhood, but the dynamic he has with Hall and Renner are quite strong. This is probably in large part why the very intense scene when Jem interrupts Doug’s date with Claire is my favorite in the film. Doug’s dynamic with other characters and the dialogue he has makes up for where Affleck the actor falls a bit short.
Robert Elswit’s cinematography wonderfully captures the Boston that Affleck and his character Doug grew up in. Harry Gregson-Williams score though, fails to seamlessly manipulate or provide memorable atmosphere like the better film scores out there. The music ends up being counter-productive at times due to its obvious motivations.
It may sound like I have a lot of complaints about this film but in actuality I very much enjoyed The Town. Affleck knows how to build tension and sustain it. He does an excellent job balancing the action sequences with the character-driven ones, making both equally involving. Each story thread might be predictable but the film is so engaging in spite of this that it becomes largely irrelevant (but still a valid complaint). Each heist is more exciting than the last and provides two memorable set-pieces. The material is all handled so well and is elevated because of it. When it comes down to it, The Town is one very entertaining trip to the cinema. It may not be a substantial achievement but it will surprise you, despite its weaknesses, because of the performances and the effective and confident directorial efforts of Ben Affleck.