This time Affleck stars as well as directs. I don’t know what impact that has; Affleck is an okay actor, but he’s a much better director, and I probably would have been okay seeing someone else in the onscreen pole position here. But whatever - Affleck the director really has it going on with The Town. Like the better actors-turned-directors out there, Affleck knows how to get strong performances from his players, but he has more skills than that. As in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck creates a palpable sense of place that makes Boston - and specifically the neighborhood of Charlestown - feel like a character in the film (this is a film review cliche I cannot get enough of, it turns out). In The Town he shows that he has a bigger skillset, and he stages some truly terrific action sequences; while the final Heat-esque gunfight at Fenway Park feels a touch too big for this particular story, it’s staged with professional mastery.
The story of The Town is a new twist on a cliched concept; Affleck is a bank robber with a heart of gold who just wants to get out of the business and out of town. When a robbery goes slightly awry the hot head in the crew - played by The Hurt Locker himself, Jeremy Renner - takes a hostage (the lovely Rebecca Hall, who floored me in Vicki Christina Barcelona). In the days after the robbery Affleck keeps tabs on the released hostage to see if she’s in any position to give the crew up. While trailing her around he falls in love, and then she falls in love with him. Meanwhile FBI man Jon Hamm is desperate to get his mitts on this crew, Renner is getting crazier and wants to do more jobs, and the forbidden love blooms and threatens to get very out of hand.
There’s a retro feel to The Town, but it’s retro in a way that is very modern. Too many films look back at the 70s and ape the stylizations of those films; Affleck looks at the 70s and figures out what the feel of those films are. In a lot of ways The Town is a story that could have come from a 1930s gangster film, told with the small character feel of a 70s movie. Add those two decades together and you get yourself a bona fide 00s film. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the story (which, to be honest, is the weakest link in the film), but it’s a tale well-told.
Here’s a secret about The Town: it’s kind of a chick flick. The movie has handsome Affleck, in recovery from drug addiction, tortured by his life, but decent and humane and romantic. He falls in love with a pretty girl from outside of his social circle - he’s a Townie, while she’s a Toonie, the local slang for a yuppie - and while he’s rough and has violence he never brings that to her. In fact, he channels his violence against guys who give her a hard time, and while no woman will admit it, there’s something endlessly romantic about that. But what The Town really taps into is the current wave of abstinence chic; Affleck and Hall don’t sleep together for what seems like weeks and instead eat at cute outdoor restaurants and talk about their personal tragedies and even go gardening (!). This is romantic, yeah, but it’s also a great storytelling choice. Too often in modern films the leads fall into bed as soon as they fall into love, and it’s hard to suss out if it’s the heart or the boner that’s making decisions. Here it’s obvious that Affleck’s rough and tumble yet gentle and smart bank robber is really in love with the upper class bank manager.
Jeremy Renner has a fairly thankless role; he’s essentially playing the same angry impetuous best buddy we’ve seen in every crime film the last few decades, and Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci perfected that role in perfect Martin Scorsese movies. Still, Renner brings a subhuman creepiness to the role that feels fresh. I’m sure the actor wouldn’t agree, but there’s something emptier in his James Coughlin than what we saw in Johnny Boy - who was a big, violent child - or in Tommy DeVito - who was deeply wounded in ways that even he didn’t understand. There’s something scarier and more fatalistic about Coughlin than those iconic bad-news-best-friends.
Hamm, meanwhile, gets down and dirty as the FBI guy. Whenever Hamm is playing someone large and in charge he’s going to come across like Don Draper (just how it goes), but here he gets to relish being even dickier than Draper, who can be a pretty big dick. There’s no question that Affleck is the good guy when the face of the law is so douchey. It isn’t that Hamm’s character is a bad guy or does bad things, it’s just that his attitude is kind of obnoxious. And I love it. It makes the FBI a more formidable opponent in the long run.
The film’s acting crux is really Rebecca Hall; everything hangs on how much you believe her. She has to be vulnerable but not a victim, and she has to be imperiled but not helpless. Her chemistry with Affleck is flawless, but so is her strength. She’s a woman dealing with a terrifying incident, but dealing with strength. It helps that Hall is beautiful in a real world way; she’s the prettiest bank manager you’ve seen in a long time, but not so pretty that you don’t believe she’s a bank manager.
The Town isn’t one of the best movies of the year and it isn’t a film that redefines the genre. It’s a solid movie that takes the trappings of a programmer and puts them on a character piece. I think that with a stronger script - why are the other two members of the robbery gang never fleshed out at all? - this could have been in another league, but for the league in which it’s playing The Town is a solid triple. I’ll tell you that my first thought walking out of the movie was that I’d be happy to see Ben Affleck, director, returning to this town and this genre again and again and again.