Let me be up front and say that Ben Affleck isn’t my favorite actor, especially when he’s not working for Kevin Smith. Somehow, he often seems out of his depth when he tries to stretch himself too far beyond that Good Will Hunting earnestness. Only two features into his directorial career, however, I’m quickly becoming a fan of his work behind the camera. We’ll see how he does when he moves outside the comfort zone of the Boston crime story, but maybe he shouldn’t bother. John Ford stuck mostly to westerns, and he did all right.
The “Town” in this case is the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown which, according to the film, is to bank robbery what Detroit is to cars (and at one point, this used to be sort of true, but not now). The story opens with a daring daylight robbery during an armored car delivery by a robbery crew led by Doug MacCray (Affleck) and his childhood friend, James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner in an Oscar-nominated performance). It goes smoothly until Jem bashes the bank manager over the head and impetuously takes the assistant manager (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage. They turn her loose but there is a complication. When they lift her driver’s license, they realize that the woman, Claire, is from their own neighborhood, one of the “Tunies” who has moved in as the formerly working-class neighborhood has gentrified. While she didn’t see their faces, she might recognize their voices on the street.
Jem wants to intimidate her to keep her quiet, but Doug would like to avoid tipping their hand and possible witness intimidation charges, so he takes a softer approach: cozy up to the woman and see what she knows. Since this is a movie and, being played by Rebecca Hall, Claire is rather pretty, I think it’s easy to see where that’s headed.
The clash over what to do about Claire clearly shows the differences and the central conflict between Doug, the careful planner who wants to make sure no one gets hurt, and Jem, the hothead who’s already done a stretch in prison for manslaughter. At one point, Jem accuses Doug of thinking he’s better than the rest of them and, the truth is, he should have been. Doug was the local hockey hero who blew his big chance at NHL glory and went into the “family business” instead. This is one detail that the movie certainly gets right, since while the working-class kids might root for the Red Sox, they all want to play for the Bruins.
Doug’s growing relationship with Claire has him thinking about getting out of Boston and the business altogether, but it’s complicated. His friendship with Jem is based on the Coughlin family taking Doug in when his mother apparently ran off and his father (Chris Cooper) went away for killing two guards in an armored car heist. Doug also has an on-again, off-again thing going with Jem’s sister (Blake Lively) and Jem has noticed that his friend’s relationship with their hostage has gone beyond pumping her for information.
The local crime boss, played by Pete Postlethwaite in one his last performances, isn’t about to let Doug walk away without pulling one more very audacious, very lucrative and very dangerous job: hitting the cash room at Fenway Park after a Sox/Yankees series. It doesn’t make things any easier to have a robbery task force led by an almost obsessively determined Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) and Det. Ciampa (Titus Welliver) closing the noose around Doug and his crew.
If you have seen Michael Mann’s Heat, then The Town should seem very familiar to you. While Affleck’s film, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, doesn’t break any new ground in the heist film genre, it does move over the well-trod path with intelligence and confidence. Mann’s film weighed you down with a cast of characters large enough for a David Lean film, but The Town is lean and efficient and isn’t saddled with an over-the-top Al Pacino. Affleck knows the territory well, both geographically and cinematically, and gets solid performances out his cast.
Beyond Jeremy Renner’s intense turn as Jem, Hamm and Welliver are convincing as the competent, straight arrow but not saintly agents of order. The California-bred Blake Lively disappears so completely into the role as Jem’s OxyContin-addled sister that, at her audition, Affleck asked what part of Boston she was from. As the intelligent low-life who knows he should have done better, the director also comfortably exceeds my expectations for him as an actor.