First with “Gone Baby Gone” and now with “The Town” Ben Affleck seems to have reinvented himself as a skilled craftsman of Boston-based crime thrillers. As it happens, Charlestown, MA is home to the highest bank heist rate per capita in the country, and it is this fact that perhaps serves as inspiration for a well-paced, psychologically astute heist movie.
Smart but socioeconomically limited Doug (played by a darkly intense Affleck) is a hockey star turned affable street hustler. He is the brains behind an on-the-rise crew of bank robbers that include a loose cannon ‘brother by another mother’ named James (the chameleon known as Jeremy Renner) and two other best friends with various specialties like getaway driving and security camera management. In the opening act, upon successfully holding up a bank in Harvard Square, two things happen: Doug falls heads over heels for the sweet and innocent bank manager, Claire (played by a vulnerable, sometimes shrill Rebecca Hall) and the crew comes to the attention of ambitious and tough-minded FBI agent Adam (played by an intense but underused Jon Hamm). From here, the story slowly builds with tension as Doug strives to appease James the action junkie, while opening up to Claire and staying away from Adam.
In therapy, assessment is imperative. What’s the patient’s diagnosis? What strengths and weaknesses emerge, and in which domain of functioning? In film, assessment is not nearly as rigorous and intensive, but the following post is my attempt to change all that. Diagnostically speaking, the film is strong and healthy, presenting as a fun, suspenseful, surprising and, at times, complex story.
A Dark Bromance: One of the best elements of tension in the film bubbles forth in the dynamic between Doug and James, two street brothers and crewmates. They are bonded by an upbringing of street savvy learned from each other and a loyalty shared by each other. And yet with increasing clarity they want different things – Doug desires a life of peace and integriy, while James exhibits the tunnel vision of a drug addicted action junkie. Thoughtfulness battles impulsivity and love bumps up against shifting needs in this dark and unusual buddy-buddy dynamic.
High-quality Acting: The acting is fantastic, particularly for a heist thriller in which character development tends to run secondary to plot. With a rage and frustration that simmers below the surface and boils over in just the right way, during the right moments, Ben Affleck imbues Doug with enough charisma so the audience roots for him, but enough edge so that we are never quite sure what he’ll do next. After wowing critics in “The Hurt Locker” Jeremy Renner seems at the top of his game and is quickly becoming one of the best character actors in Hollywood. He has a thin line to walk with his character. He must come across as aggressive and impulsive enough to immediately threaten the goals of our moral protagonist but he must also make sense as an emotional force deserving of respect and adoration. He balances these opposing forces exceeding well, particularly in generating fear. It’s worth noting here that Affleck seems to be joining the ranks of established, A-list directors by moving from film to film with a cast of secondary characters who provide authentic yet polished performances. He does this here with a few key Bostonians, including a hustler/actor named Albert Magloan and cop/actor Dino Ciampa.
A Gray World: Gone are the days of black and white - black and white television and black and white moral lines. It used to be that John Wayne was all good and whoever he was fighting against was all bad. Modern films that strive to be sophisticated must appreciate the realistic and nuanced fact of human nature that, to varying degrees, there is both good and bad in us all. “The Town” pays homage to his point, by running a ‘fight fire with fire’ theme throughout the plot, as the cops and robbers are all constructed with notable positive and negatives. Figures on both sides of the legal line are portrayed with admirable values hidden below behavio that seems amoral and reckless. In fact, there may even be a tipping point in which the FBI agents appear so corner-cutting and Doug’s character seems so glorified that the audience will honestly hope that the bank robber gets away clean.
Fun Heist Elements: In successful heist movies there must be moments where the audience laughs with pleasure at the cleverness of a well-made facade. Costumes and locales often serve this role well, and Affleck does not disappoint as he provides the bank robbers with an utterly unique look. Surprisingly scary masks, including a purposefully grotesque Nun costume, imbue the robbers with a sense of professionalism and danger. Further, during the final and most elaborate bank heist, Doug changes uniforms at a dizzying pace, going from a Police Officer, to an EMT, back to a Police Officer and then finally posing as a MBTA bus driver. Also, by placing the final heist within the bowels of Fenway Park, perhaps the most culturally relevant and grand place in all of historic Boston, the gravitas of the event is elevated.
Accelerated intimacy: When two characters fall in love in a romantic thriller, as Doug and Claire do, the evolution of the relationship must be quick (as it is secondary to the heist plot) yet authentic (as we need to believe it as an observing audience). “The Town” does this job admirably as merely a few scenes pack a powerful punch. The key is that Affleck has the characters tell brief but insightful stories about themselves, particularly key developmental milestones that shaped who they are as adults. For isntance, when Doug tells the story of his mother’s abandonment with vivid detail and lingering sadness, Claire and the audience are reeled in hook, line and sinker.
Touches of humor: Films like “The Town” are often two plus hours of dreary suspense. Being on the edge of your seat is both exhausting and uncomfortable…which is why successful films in this genre sprinkle in humor at unexpected times. There are a few moments of razor sharp wit, including a scene in which a cop literally looks the other way and when Doug prevails upon James’ strengths in solving a personal problem.
The Cat and Mouse Game: A raunchy game of cat and mouse unfolds between Doug and Adam. As the hunted, Doug is the mouse and, therefore, a step-ahead. As the hunter, Adam is persistent. The key to this dynamic is to make both players sufficiently smart so that there retorts move with the speed of a Sampras and Agassi tennis volley. With Doug’s confidence and Adam’s attention to detail, both characters attain sufficient degrees of sophistication which allows the chase to play out with urgency.
Stay tuned for Part II, an assessment of the film’s weaknesses.