|Some likely lads - Ben Affleck and crew in The Town|
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.|
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).