It’s cool to make fun of Ben Affleck. Conventional wisdom was that Affleck and Matt Damon made the leap with Good Will Hunting, but it turns out that most of the talent the duo had was with Damon. While the acting side of things certainly favors Damon, Affleck is acquitting himself well from a directing standpoint. I’ll admit to having not yet seen Gone Baby Gone, the first film he directed, but I can say his latest, The Town, shows that he has some real talent working from behind the camera. This talent makes a film worth seeing, but Affleck definitely has some room to improve as well.
The Town refers to Charlestown, an area of Boston notorious for being the home of bank robbers. Affleck plays Doug Macray, the leader of a four person team of thieves who hit banks and armored cars for a living. Though he has three other team members, only one really matters, which is Jeremy Renner in the role of James Coughlin. James and Doug have been best friends since childhood and Doug has an on again off again relationship with his sister, Krista, played by Gossip Girl star Blake Lively in about a large a departure from that show as possible. While I won’t disparage the actors who play the remaining team, basically a driver and a tech guy, they are just “the two other dudes” and are not developed at all as characters.
The film opens in a quite intense manner, as we get an in your face style bank robbery with all the thieves in masks. As much as I hate to just explain one scene, this opening basically sets up the entire story of the film and is not really a spoiler. Affleck uses this scene to set up the primary conflict of the movie, namely that his character Macray is the calm leader who acts tough but doesn’t want to actually hurt anybody and that Coughlin is sort of crazy and will actively seek out reasons to hit people in the face with the butt of his automatic rifle. As the thieves make their escape, Coughlin takes a young bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), hostage in case they need leverage at a potential stand-off with the police. After successfully escaping without such a stand-off, they let Clair go, unharmed.
So of course, through a somewhat unlikely series of events, Macray ends up having a relationship with Claire, who has no idea he robbed her bank and threatened her at gunpoint. He has to juggle hiding his relationship with Claire from both Coughlin’s, hiding the fact he’s a career criminal from Claire, and staying off the radar of an FBI agent named Frawley, played absolutely brilliantly by Jon Hamm. I know what your thinking. Yes, none of this story is new. A criminal with a heart of gold who hates hurting anybody unless he has too! His firebrand partner who resorts to violence at the drop of a hat! The girl on the up and up who wins his heart and offers the promise of a better life! The FBI agent obsessed with bringing him down! These are staples of the genre. And to be honest, Affleck doesn’t mess with them too much. The film is very deliberate and almost (key word: almost) too heavy-handed and in your face about the plot. It never quite reaches the level of being a self parody though. Affleck shares writing credit for the screenplay for The Town which I both give him credit for (some of the dialogue is clever and realistic) and knock him down a few notches (predictable and heavy-handed).
So what makes this film worth watching, which I definitely believe it is? Small touches and a couple of impressive actors make the film rise above just being a standard crime drama. Affleck as an actor is good but not great. I believed him as Macray but nothing about the character made him stand out as something memorable. Jeremy Renner (who was amazing in The Hurt Locker) on the other hand takes the character of Coughlin and makes him his own. Yes, we’ve seen short-tempered violent criminals on screen before, but it was a pleasure to watch Renner be that guy. Similar relationships between Macray and Coughlin type characters always make me wonder, “How in the hell are these guys friends?” Renner breaks that mold a bit by showing flashes of loyalty and compassion amidst the otherwise scary exterior. Yes, he’s a loose cannon who is going to bring some trouble to Macray’s team. But I could identify with Macray being friends with and working with this guy. I attribute that to Renner, whose quickly rising on my list of actors I will watch in anything because he’s that good. (This does not apply to past movies: SWAT UGH).
The aforementioned small touches also contribute to the film. Without going spoilery, but some things to watch for that were extremely well done, which I give Affleck credit as a director for. Macray and Coughlin donning their hockey masks to do some dirty work. Coughlin being thirsty at a strange time. And a fantastic scene to end one of the more impressive car chases in movies as of late, involving the team of thieves and a single cop. I read an article in which Affleck said the scene I’m talking about came from a real life interview with a bank robber, which makes it all the more interesting. It’s a moment that humanizes the thieves and the police and is one my favorite moments in the film. It would actually probably be my favorite thing about the film if it weren’t for one thing:
I do not watch Mad Men. I should, I know. Everything I’ve heard, read, received by smoke signal or carrier pigeon has said it is an incredible show. Much of that credit is attributed to star Jon Hamm. After watching Hamm in even a supporting role in The Town, I can see why. Hamm takes the part of what could be a cliché FBI agent and makes it completely his own. He’s a force of personality. His character cleary isn’t the most brilliant guy in the room, but he’s most definitely the leader. It’s unfortunate for Hamm that the actual character of Agent Frawley is pretty one-dimensional. It’s hard to explain how he turns Frawley into something worth seeing. His delivery and mannerisms just blew me away, and I am eagerly awaiting starting to watch Mad Men and any other roles Hamm gets in the future. If he can make something out of the nothing he has here, a substantive role should be amazing.
A quick note about Blake Lively as Krista Coughlin. She doesn’t have much to do here, but I came away impressed. Mind you, her performance was not stellar. Like pretty much everybody but Macray, Coughlin, and Claire, Krista is written with zero development. That being said, I will tentatively say I understand why the producers stopped their search for Green Lantern’s love interest after she auditioned for the part in the upcoming film based on the DC comic. The solid performance here tells me she at least CARES about trying to branch out of her Gossip Girl roots, cares about trying to become a better actor, and seems to be avoiding the pitfalls of somebody like, I don’t know, Lindsey Lohan.
Sadly for Affleck and The Town, the ending of the movie is not very good. The final “job” is fine, with a healthy dose of action and clever moments. However, again no spoilers, where we find Macray’s character at the end of the film is sloppy and even more cliché than the rest of the film. I am not a slave to the idea that every film has to follow the same formula, ie there has to be some catharsis or that characters must get what they deserve kind of thing. However, that kind of stuff does have to be earned in some manner. This puts a neat and tidy little bow on almost every plot point in the last couple minutes, and much of it seems unearned. However, this should not dissuade you from checking out the film. What you have is a well put together heist movie, with excellent action and a few stand out performances and moments. Other than the above mentioned ending, everything else was good but not great. I’m not sure I quite buy in to the Oscar buzz for this movie, but Affleck proves that he is a capable filmmaker. The directing is better than the writing, so I’d be interested to see what Affleck could do with better source material. Just be prepared for some HEAVY Boston accents.
If you’re interested in another take, check out Nicholas Scalice’s here.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | Ben Affleck, Blake Lively, Boston, catharsis, Charlestown, Elrood, Fenway Park, firebrand, genre film, Gone Baby Gone, Gossip Girl, Hawkeye, heart of gold, heist film, honor among thieves, jeremy renner, Jon Hamm, loose cannon, Mad Men, Matt Damon, Rebecca Hall, The Avengers, the hurt locker, The Town