Thursday, December 16, 2010

On "The Town"

I wasn't going to write anything about "The Town," which I saw a few months back when it was released in theaters. It's not a bad film, but I saw little to recommend it and not much to really discuss at length. Now, however, it's up for major award contention and may squeeze out some of the smaller, better titles I feel are more deserving of note. So it's time to put down some words.

An epigraph informs us that Charlestown, Boston produces more bank robbers and bank robberies than anywhere else in the world. We're then thrust into the center of one, where the four masked perpetrators get away with the money, after briefly taking a bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage. The film follows two of the robbers, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), who work under the direction of a local kingpin, Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite). Both men come from rough backgrounds, and Doug's father Stephen (Chris Cooper) is serving time in federal prison for similar crimes. In the aftermath of the robbery, with FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) leading an intense investigation, Doug and Jem have very different ideas of where to go next. Jem wants to take another big job, but Doug is falling in love with Claire, the only possible witness against them. Despite the risk, he begins a relationship with her, which ends up endangering both of them.

Smart people do dumb, risky things in the movies all the time, and we suspend our disbelief and follow along, because the actors are convincing or the storytelling is strong enough to get us over a ridiculous premise. With "The Town," I could not wrap my head around the love story between Ben Affleck's and Rebecca Hall's characters. These are both good actors who turn in decent performances here, but at no point was I convinced that the connection between these two was strong enough for their relationship to play out the way that it does. Whatever affection was apparent between them doesn't feel forced, but it does feel heavily manipulated to the point where I thought it impacted the basic integrity of the film negatively. The entire story turns on the viability of this relationship, and I don't think the filmmakers gave it as much time or attention as it needed. There's an extended cut of "The Town" that runs an extra half hour, and I wonder if that footage fixes some of the story problems.

As is, most of the film is spent following Doug MacRay around Charlestown, excising his personal demons. As an actor, Ben Affleck gets by, but only just. He's not miscast as the lead , but you do get the nagging feeling that someone else probably could have sold it better. In a big supporting role that's gotten lots of attention, Jeremy Renner does a great job with Doug's dangerously unpredictable livewire friend, Jem. I also liked Blake Lively as Jem's troubled sister, in one of her first major film appearances. The only member of the cast I thought really ran into major trouble was Jon Hamm. His FBI agent antagonist is a too broad and too obviously set up as a villain. This is as much the fault of the script as it is the actor, and the same goes for Rebecca Hall as the unremarkable Claire. I sympathized with her, but I had little investment in her character.

"The Town" is a decent crime drama, and it's further proof that Ben Affleck is coming along very well as a director. There are several major action setpieces built around the robberies in the film, which are very kinetic, exciting, and fun to watch. If you edited down the other segments, "The Town" makes for a solid action film, but it's to Affleck's credit that he had bigger ambitions for the material. I don't think he pulled off everything he was striving for in the dramatic department, but he accomplishes plenty. There are some lovely, subtle scenes that he just nails perfectly. I really want to see him step out of this narrow milieu of somber Boston crime films in the future, because I think he's got the potential to follow Eastwood and Scorsese and tackle a much wider variety of projects.

A few good supporting performances aside, however, I don't understand where the critical acclaim is coming from. Give Affleck a couple more years, though, and I think he might turn out something really worthy of our attention.

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