Movie Review: The Town
The Charlotte Observer
Think of Ben Affleck as the Woody Allen of Boston.
Both write and direct their best films in home cities, on streets they know intimately – Allen the glittering avenues of Manhattan, Affleck the gritty alleys of Beantown.
Both have cast themselves in the parts they play best: immature guys who go after women outside their social classes, only to discover that getting the girl is less important than getting a grip on their own troubled selves.
And after seeing the conventional, well-crafted crime drama “The Town,” I’d rather hear Big Ben strike again than saw through another clunky effort by The Woodman.
Warner Bros. has advertised the film as being “from the director of ‘Gone Baby Gone’” without mentioning that Affleck was the director of that gripping thriller about a kidnapped child. That’s because, after a string of dud leading roles and absurd cameos, Affleck had become rather a joke in Hollywood.
“The Town” proves that bad casting, not lack of talent, has been his primary nemesis. He’s got the role of his career as Doug MacRay, who supplements his paycheck from a sand and gravel works by knocking off an occasional bank or armored car.
He befriends a bank manager (Rebecca Hall) after a heist to find out whether she saw anything that could incriminate him or his friends. MacRay’s second-in-command, tightly wound Jim Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), wants the woman whacked. But MacRay begins to see her as a way out of an increasingly violent and dangerous life that has lost its appeal.
Chuck Hogan’s 2005 novel “Prince of Thieves” reportedly deals more with the generational heritage of Boston crime, where fathers pass techniques and tools to sons.
The screenplay by Peter Craig, Affleck and Aaron Stockard (who adapted “Gone Baby Gone” with Affleck) touches on that aspect. But as the new title suggests, it’s more about the city – the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, whose tourism rates will drop after this release – that hems these characters in. (Yes, Affleck writes too. And shares a screenplay Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” with Matt Damon.)
Because the tale is straightforward and conventional, it needed and got terrific acting: Jon Hamm as an intelligent FBI investigator, Chris Cooper (who has just one scene) as embittered Papa MacRay and Pete Postlethwaite, one of the scariest supporting actors in screen history, as the twinkly sadist who plans the crimes. Only Blake Lively, brought in to attract the under-35 crowd, is miscast as MacRay’s former girlfriend.
Affleck’s direction suggests Michael Mann’s, though Mann would have cast someone else in the lead and added 30 minutes of narrative fat.
Affleck gives a fine visual sense of place and alternates well-paced dialogue with tautly graphic thefts, including a robbery at Fenway Park. Meanwhile, he’s first-rate as the inarticulate man who has always defined himself by his body and nerve and now realizes there may be some value to his brain and heart, too.
Affleck has found his double niche in “The Town” – a triple niche, if you count his screenplay partnership – and become one of those rare Hollywood creatures more formidable in middle age than youth. Folks who wrote him off as a handsome blockhead will have to re-evaluate him.