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The Town


Some likely lads - Ben Affleck and crew in The Town
"Blackberries forward!" shouts one of the bank robbers, from behind his grim reaper mask as he brandishes an automatic weapon during a heist at the onset of The Town.    Apparently this now one of the de rigeur behests of those robbing banks in the 21st century, perhaps replacing the reliable old "Put yer hands in the air!"   It also seems a kind of confirmation as to what sort of compulsion it might take to separate most people from their Blackberries or smart phones.

The devices are gathered, put into a small bucket and submerged in liquid.   It's just one of many impressively thorough steps  - finding the exploding dye that has foiled more than one bank robber with a bag of stolen loot, collecting security tapes and frying them in a microwave, spreading bleach to remove traces of DNA - taken by this decidedly professional group of criminals as they rob a bank one morning.  The extended heist sequence is probably the high point of director Ben Affleck's second directorial effort.

Once they become aware that a silent alarm has been tripped, the robbers take a female bank manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage, ultimately dropping her while still blindfolded, telling her to walk until she feels water.  This shot of Claire (the bank manager) from behind, standing blindfolded on a pebbly beach serves as the title sequence.   It's an impressive bit of economy from Affleck, as the title appears in white letters over the image and then is quickly cut.   From here, matters take a downward trajectory consistent enough with most bank robbing careers.   Having found some resurgence in his own career by directing Gone Baby Gone, also set in a working class neighborhood of his adopted hometown of Boston, Ben Affleck is like a criminal that hits the same location one too many times.  






Gone Baby Gone came by its drama rather cheaply, which seems to be a pattern with Dennis Lehane, on whose novel it was based.   Manipulative as was the story, Affleck's direction was a pleasant surprise, if not a revelation.   Some of the interior scenes in particular, with brother Casey Affleck carrying a wavering lantern into some of the social darkness around him, were frighteningly memorable.

The Town is watchable enough for most of its two hours, but beyond that first sequence, largely a matter of pacing and patience, little stands out.  Affleck does give us shots of clouds passsing overhead.  Numerous shots.  Clouds speeding over the Bunker Hill monument, clouds racing over less-hallowed pieces of Boston real estate.  I wrote in my review for David Fincher's The Social Network that such a shot was probably beneath him, or any director at this point.  But at least Mr. Fincher had the relative grace to include only one such sequence in the midst of his otherwise superior effort.   Just as the hack architect inserts gratuitous balustrades as some vague signifier of class, the hack director cuts to clouds sliding portentously across the sky in time-lapse so a willing audience can fill in a depth the director doesn't know how to provide.   So, we have clouds sliding by.  

His excessive interest in meterology aside, Mr. Affecks' main problem is not his generally competent direction.  The main problem here is story.   During that first heist, one of Doug's crew, James, or Jem (Jeremy Renner) steals Claire's driver's license and is disturbed to find that she is resident of their own Charlestown.   Since James is the loosest cannon among them, Doug decides to look into the matter himself.   He shadows Claire to a laundromat and stations himself near her with a paper, without pretending to do any laundering, mind you.   The still-vulnerable Claire first asks him for change and then has a minor meltdown, for which Doug provides some consolation.   A very unlikely, though neon-obvious romance ensues.

If you were a woman who was recently taken hostage, how likely would you be to venture out to do your laundry?   Well, likely enough perhaps, if you're living in some great vintage place in Charlestown but don't have laundry hookup as yet.   But how likely would you be to take solace and then go out for a drink with a strange man who just happens to sit near you at the laundromat?  Think about it.   Would you very early in this budding romance admit all the details of your recent truama and not find it all suspicious that your new suitor seems to know a lot about crime and witness protocols and takes more than a passing interest in whether you plan to share an important detail (remembering Jem's fighting Irish tattoo, as it turns out) with the FBI?   As with the frustrating Please Give, Rebecca Hall grapples with a character endowed with ample humanity but not a great deal of intelligence.
 
Do not trust this man.   Rebecca Hall and Ben Affleck.
 Hamstrung by the implausible romance, The Town proceeds as Doug's crew consider another heist.    He's wary of this one because he suspects one of the armored truck drivers might play the hero.  Jem will hear none of it, so they go forward with their plan.   True to Doug's instincts, the heist goes sour, the driver leaves the truck to try to foil the robbery and Jem shoots him.   To this point, the criminal aspect of the film actually adheres to a logic and Affleck presents it all well enough.




Jeremy Renner as Jem
Jeremy Renner plays Jem.   The Town marks his first major film appearance since his memorable performance in The Hurt Locker.   There is a similar intensity about Jem as was the case with the bomb diffuser in The Hurt Locker, and in he's still involved in war games of a kind.  But this looks and feels like a very different man.   It goes beyond the lean military look gone slack.  There seems a resignation not only in his eyes, but in his very flesh.  As with that second heist gone wrong, there is a grim logic in the character of Jem, he seems of his surroundings and his end comes as a surprise neither to him nor an audience.   There is also a compassion for Jem, for guys like Jem, in the film that does not seem out of place.  Renner is excellent.   Had The Town centered on his character, it might have been a different and vastly better film.   

Affleck's decision to work on both sides of the camera is part of the problem here.  He, like his film, wants to appropriate the pathos inherent in the setting of The Town to give his endeavors weight, to buy some street cred., as it were.  But in the end, as an actor and director, he doesn't seem to want to get his hands dirty.   His Doug MacRay, pried from the timeworn mold of the good thief or the man who wants to pull one last job before he goes straight, is not a particularly credible character.  The accent might be authentic enough, but both feet are planted firmly in Hollywood. 

Doug's backstory is offered awkardly in a biographical dump of information he and Claire share while she tends to a community garden in her neighborhood.   The story is then filled out in a subsequent FBI briefing, led by a usually one step behind the criminals special agent, Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm, creating a distinct enough character, though bringing with him Don Draper's five o'clock shadow and apparent distaste for humanity).   Doug tells Claire of his once promising hockey career, his youthful hubris, ignominious return to Charlestown and eventual addiction to oxycontin.  That last revelation clarifies earlier scenes in which we see Doug turn down alcohol in a bar, work his impressive physique in his lonely apartment (I half expected him to throw a few eggs in glass, down it and then go for a jog through Charlestown, maybe find some stairs to climb...) early one morning before wandering into an AA or NA meeting.  

Looking for sympathy from Claire and audience members alike, Doug also tells Claire of his less-than-ideal youth, with a hapless father and mother who disaappeared when he was just a boy.   We meet the father, who's doing time in federal prison.   It's a brief scene, but Chris Cooper as Stephen MacRay makes his mark, abetted by some stern-looking eyeglasses.  One of the things Affleck has done best is surround himself with a pretty formidable cast.  Pete Postlethwaite is on hand, looking as gnarled as some withered stem that might be cast aside in his flower shop.  He plays Fergie, ostensbily a florist, but really a crime boss.  Speaking in a menacing, somewhat on-again, off-again brogue, he gives Doug the bitter low-down on his mother's disappearance and forces him to assay that proverbial last big heist.  The heist in question?  Fenway Park, "the cathedral of Boston," as Fergie says, bulging with cash after a big weekend series with the hated Yankees.  

With that final heist, the implausability of The Town's criminal storyline finally makes an unfortunate convergence with the lack of credibility looming over the character of Doug MacRay and his romance with Claire.   By this time, Claire has been made aware of Doug's real vocation by agent Frawley.   In trying to explain himself to Claire, in the hopes of not losing her, he promises total honesty from that point forward.   "Ask me anything you want," he implores her.  After being asked how many robberies he has performed, Claire asks Doug if he has ever killed anyone.  "No," he responds, looking just slightly incredulous, maybe a little wounded by the implication.  It's true, but only because Doug operates in a film in which you can send a ferocious hail of automatic gunfire at police and never actually kill anyone.  This was the case with the armored car robbery gone wrong and continues with that last attempted heist at Fenway Park.

The Fenway job occurs at a time when the FBI task force is watching every move of Jem and Doug's crew.  Well, not every move.  "...we'll never get twenty four hour surveillance unless one of these idiots converts to Islam, " deadpans agent Frawley during an earlier briefing.   The script, at least, does have its moments, as is the case in a confrontation between Frawley and MacRay when the latter is brought in for questioning.   But the story lacks the conviction to be what it merely pretends to be.   Everyone in the crew, save Doug, meets a logical end when they try to flee with the Fenway cash.  Jem, determined to go down fighting instead of doing more time, fires madly at police officers and agents, but we see only a shield being disintegrated, not cops actually being killed.  That very logical result of such a gun battle might reflect badly on Affleck's character and the actor himself.  He's no killer, after all.   Just a guy trying to build a new life, one armed robbery at a time.    



In the end, we see Doug, bearded and looking pensively out to sea (presumably somewhere on the coast of Florida), telling Claire through a note left behind that he realizes there are consequences for his actions, but he'll eventually see her "on the other side," echoing words spoken to him dismissively by his father as they parted company in the federal prison.   He looks and sounds like a guy looking for a Nicholas Sparks novel to join.   

Affleck actually held a premier for The Town at Fenway Park.  Speaking at that event, he said, “Charlestown isn’t full of bank robbers and Dorchester isn’t full of bad guys and Southie isn’t full of math geniuses or bad people..."   The Dorchester and Southie (South Boston, long a working class Irish stronghold) references are to the locations used in Gone Baby Gone and Good Will Hunting, respectively.  Affleck went on to acknowledge that, of course, these darker story lines make for more interesting films.  Well, yes.  I don't doubt Affleck's knowledge of or even affection for the grittier areas of Boston.  But there is a fine line between pointing out squalor (be it physical, emotional or economic), demonstrating compassion  and exploiting it. 

Given the success of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck may continue to mine the lurking pathos and cultural dysfunction unique to Charlestown, Dorchester, Southie, or elsewhere.  But he may want to hurry up, as some of those rougher parts of town have seen considerable gentrification in the past twenty years.   That conflict is addressed briefly, when Claire asks Doug the meaning of the word "tunie."  It's the opposite of townie, a gentrifying yuppie.  When interesting statistics appear on the screen at the beginning of The Town, noting the extraordinary number heists instigated by Charlestown residents, there's no mention of the fact that the worst spate of bank and armored car robberies occured in the early-1990's. 

Obviously, where Affleck locates films is his business.  If he chooses to return to some of the less picturesque areas of Boston, he wouldn't exactly be the first artist to produce variations on the same theme or place.  I would be happy to see him do it ten times over if he can produce intelligent, humane films and bring some style to the process.  Unfortunately, The Town is a mediocre film with pretensions to something more substantial.   To see a better, more assured film set in Charlestown, check out Ted Demme's Monument Avenue (1998).  

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