Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review - The Town

The Town is exactly the movie Ben Affleck needed to make to build upon his impressive directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. While this tale of Boston cops and robbers might lack the emotional resonance of his first film, it allows Affleck to widen his scope as a filmmaker, and to face the challenge of staging complex action sequences while keeping his hometown of Boston as a safety net. In The Town, Boston – or more specifically, the neighbourhood of Charlestown – is depicted as a breeding ground for bank robbers, with a life of crime being handed down along the generations from father to son, and Affleck undeniably has the eye, ear and feel for this environment. The film also gives him the opportunity to try his hand at both directing and acting in the same picture, with Affleck taking on the lead role of Doug MacRay.

Doug is the leader of an accomplished four-man team of bank robbers, and the film opens with their latest heist. Dressed in ghoulish masks they are swift and efficient, adhering strictly to a plan that has been worked out to the finest details, but there are two flies in the ointment. One is Doug's closest ally Jem (Jeremy Renner), an unpredictable hothead with an itchy trigger finger, and the other is Claire (Rebecca Hall), the young bank manager who they decide to take as a hostage after the heist. Later, as he stalks the only witness who can put his crew away, Doug falls for Claire, but this love story is The Town's weakest element. The development of this relationship is too rapid and it lacks the heat required for it to feel like anything other than a hackneyed plot device, giving Doug a glimpse of a better life and setting up the old "one last job" dénouement

So, The Town doesn't do anything that myriad crime movies haven't done before (it's hard to avoid thinking of Michael Mann's masterpiece Heat on numerous occasions), but it does what it does pretty well. Affleck directs with assurance and confidence, staging a number of excellent set-pieces, including a fine shootout and car chase, even if the action can become a little confusing at times (a situation not helped by the four crooks all wearing the same masks). I think Affleck's best attribute as a director is the attention he pays to his cast, drawing excellent performances from every actor, just as he did in his debut. Some members of the ensemble aren't given a great deal to do (rapper Slaine and newcomer Owen Burke seem to be there to make up the numbers), but all are convincing in their parts and some manage to spark fireworks with their brief appearances. Pete Postlethwaite is on great form as a nasty crime boss and Chris Cooper, in a single-scene cameo, gives an indelible performance as a lifelong criminal now waiting to die in jail.

In fact, a number of the supporting players manage to outshine the leading man. Affleck is solid in his starring role, but there are times when The Town requires something more, and he struggles to find it. We can sense the strain in his performance, particularly when he is acting opposite John Hamm (as a dogged FBI agent) or the electric Renner, both of whom make their turns seem so effortless. The fact that Affleck can't really bring off the torment that Doug is supposed to be experiencing means The Town never achieves the epic, tragic sweep he's striving for, and it means the film's running time eventually feels overextended. Nevertheless, The Town managed to hold my attention throughout and its climactic heist sequence is an outstanding piece of sustained thriller filmmaking. It's another commendable offering from Affleck the director, one that shows advancement in some quarters while displaying regression in others, and I've no doubt he'll make better films in the future, as his experience and ability grows to match his ambitions.