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Non-Review Review: The Town

It’s interesting to see how well Ben Affleck has redeemed himself as a director. After seeing Gone Baby Gone two years ago, I was willing to forgive the actor his roles in bad films like Jersey Girl, Phantoms and even Daredevil. I know he did Gigli too, but I can never forgive him for that. His second film behind the camera, The Town, demonstrates that he isn’t a one-hit wonder – but I have to admit that perhaps I am a bit disappointed. It isn’t that The Town is a bad or even an average film, it’s just one that I heard so much about that I had almost psyched myself up to watch. It’s a well-made exploration of urban decay which tackles its subjects with what seems (to a guy educated and living in a different country) to be a lot more honesty and neutrality than most films on the same subject matter.

So good it's criminal?

Between this and Gone Baby Gone, part of me wonders whether Boston will make a point of refusing Ben Affleck filming permission. Although the film is delivered to cinemas with a piece of text reminding viewers that not all residents of the city are professional bank robbers (which is perhaps the most patronising disclaimer I have ever seen), it doesn’t change the fact that Affleck has portrayed the city as something of an urban wasteland. This is the wreckage of America, the one that is rarely shown – the one that, when we do see it, is usually radically sensationalised in order to appeal to middle- and upper-class viewers.

It’s to Affleck’s credit that he avoids (mostly) glamourising any aspect of life here in his tale of the “bank robbery capital of the world”. His subjects feel organic and real, but none are ever painted as “good guy” or “bad guy” in the context of the film itself. Although the lead character, Doug McCray (played by Affleck), is shown to be more than just a petty street thug, the movie constantly reminds us that he is a man of violence. Perhaps not so much as his close associate James Coughlan (played by Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker), but McCray is a character who accepts that his world is one of violence. The movie leaves its audience to determine just how much of that comes from his environment (which McCray longs to escape) or how much is genetic (his father is serving time for murdering security guard) or how much is just him personally (a romantic gesture sees McCray brutalising some thugs who scared his girlfriend and chasing them out of town), which is a fair move – it’s too easy to force a particular explanation down the viewer’s throats.

In fact, the film shrewdly portrays everything as a sort of mundane nine-to-five activity. The opening text informs us that in this area of Boston, bank robbing is almost a family trade – passed from father to son. Indeed, McCray is shown as a consummate professional, carefully researching his targets and their routine, and the danger to the team comes from the member who pushes things too far. There’s no hint of obsession or the romantic idea of some sort of noble rebellion in the actions of the group – this is simply the livelihood they have chosen. When you go to prison, you just take it on the chin – not necessarily out some unspoken honour code, but just because it’s a risk that goes with the work.

Can he steal her heart?

Affleck uses the familiar device in these films of juxtaposing cops and robbers – here McCray sees his workmanship mirrored in Federal Agent Frawley (played by Mad Men‘s John Hamm). Frawley isn’t obsessive or reckless like most officers chasing quarry in these sorts of films, he’s cold and contained – unlike the vast majority of on-screen cops, his methods aren’t noble or psychotic (movie cops tend to fluctuate between one extreme or the other). One gets the sense that he clocks out at five and doesn’t take the work home with him. Hell, he probably has a wife and kids, in a stable family unit. It’s just a job, after all.

The movie’s charm comes from its refusal to play things up for dramatic sake – in fact, it correctly asserts that there’s a drama in these situations that doesn’t need to be exaggerated or falsely heightened. A high-speed car chase through the narrow housing estates of Charlestown is one of the freshest chase sequences in decades precisely because it doesn’t feature ridiculous stunt driving or reckless endangerment or any number of clichés that we’ve come to expect from these sequences. It feels almost real – certainly far more so than the heavily stylised and empty action of a given summer blockbuster.

Despite the fact the film offers far more opportunity for action work and setpieces than Gone Baby Gone, the actor-turned-director again demonstrates his strength with performers. The cast is rounded out with strong supporting turns from the underrated Rebecca Hall (who, for my money, gave the best performance in Vicky Christina Barcelona), Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper, Blake Lively and Titus Welliver. My better half even spotted an early tiny role for Victor Garber. It’s a fantastic cast, full of actors who aren’t necessarily star, but are among the best at what they do.

That said, I have to admit being a bit underwhelmed by the film. Perhaps it was the fact that everyone everywhere was raving about the film. Perhaps it was the fact that the film felt the need to talk down to me to remind me that “decent people” also live in Charlestown (really, who doesn’t get that?). Perhaps it was an ending that didn’t feel as true-to-life as the rest of the film. I’m not going to spoil it by discussing it, but I thought it felt decidedly at odds with the mood of the film – but maybe that’s just me.

When all is said and done, The Town is a fine piece of cinema and a film that Affleck can be proud of. Although I still prefer his debut, I’m delighted at the wider attention the film is garnering and I’m excited to see what he can offer next. Perhaps he can – eventually – make me forgive him for Gigli.

Note: I recently rewatched the “extended cut” of The Town on Blu Ray and I have to admit, I thought it worked much better. I genuinely loved it. Check out my thoughts here.

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3 Responses

  1. Hearing too much buzz about a movie is a b***, isn’t it? I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. As you note, there was a lot of potential for this movie to go over-the-top but Affleck has a great sense of restraint which gives his movie authenticity and credibility.

    • Yep. It’s very dignified. Which is a strange word for a street-level drama about bank robbers, but it feels right.

  2. I really liked this. Top five of the year for me, but it might fall out after Black Swan, 127 Hours and True Grit.

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