© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

The Town (R)

Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Chris Cooper

When we heard a few years ago that Ben Affleck was going to direct a feature film, we all instinctually rolled our eyes because we’ve seen the projects he’s been involved with before; dare I mention Gigli, Jersey Girl, or Paycheck (and those were consecutive, for cryin’ out loud).  But as we got into Gone Baby Gone, we noticed that our eyes were doing something very different: They were being held open, along with our jaws, at how beautifully and powerfully that particular story was told.  So I, for one, was pretty stoked to see what Affleck could do with his next film, especially when I heard that he was adapting the novel himself, as well as playing the lead role.

 

However, when I heard it was set back in Boston (as every third movie has been for the last few years), I have to admit I was a little disappointed.  We get it, Hollywood, Boston is shitty town full of tough stories.  I just can’t get too excited about two more hours of “Hey, I pahked the cah down by da hahbah.”  I swear to God, if my inner monologue picks up on that accent, I’m simply gonna lose it.  But hey, bank robberies, Affleck directing, John Hamm, Chris Cooper?  Alright, fine.  You twisted my arm.

The directing is very rough and minimalist, staying level with the atmosphere of Boston as well as of the gritty microcosms of the characters lives.  There’s a lot of handheld work, which draws us in and allows us to experience the story alongside the characters in the film without making any grand cinematic gestures.  In other words, Affleck does a good job of making us feel like we’re not watching a movie.  We’re even privy to a slew of real-world camera footage or photography throughout.  Eerie moments of silence and pixelated, grey security footage is sprinkled throughout intense and violent bank robberies on several occasions, and because of the behind-the-scenes, secure world the guys work it, there are cameras and monitors peppered everywhere.  Calls to mind such great films as Snatch and Good Night, and Good Luck, which can’t hurt.

The performances were all solid; we knew Affleck could act like a Boston thug, that Rebecca Hall could act like a poor victim, and that Chris Cooper could spend three minutes acting like someone’s father.  I never thought I’d find myself disliking Jon Hamm, but he did a good job of acting like the douchebag Fed.  I hate to say it, but I think he might run into the trouble that James Gandolfini (and on a totally different note, Jason Alexander) have found, which is that no one will ever be able to look at him the same way again.  Hamm?  Gandalf-who? Who’s this Alex guy?  Oh, you mean Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and George Costanza?  Why didn’t you say so?

Renner was the most fun to watch, capturing perfectly the intensity of a sociopath willing to do anything and at the same time the genial air of a good friend you’ve known forever.  He did a good job of distancing himself from his performance in The Hurt Locker (which I didn’t think was anything special in the first place), and there’s always the impending sense of a lit wick whenever he enters the scene.  You just don’t know how long that wick might be.

The hook itself is enjoyable enough, if not a little cliche.  Criminal sent to intimidate girl falls for her and dramatic hijinks ensue.  It is rife for suspense however, and Affleck does his best to take advantage of it.  Because the bank robber doesn’t want the girl to find out who he is (which includes spotting a tattoo on the back of Renner’s neck, which makes for one of the better scenes in the film), he’s doing his best to have his cake and eat it to.  Her ignorance of his identity, Hamm’s task force closing in, and a half-psycho best friend who might kill the girl you like at any second can really put a lot of pressure on a guy.  Throw in a father who’s been in jail since Moses was breast feeding and a mother who’s disappearance has never been resolved and now you’ve got the makings of a taught, suspenseful heist flick with a Bostonian attitude.

The main theme explored is that of bad guys posing as good guys, and vice versa, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense.  Remember the creepy nun masks?  The disguises the men use range from scary skeleton masks (obviously bad and frightening) to nun masks (more ironic and creepy) to uniforms of police officers and EMT’s (more realistic and subtle, more frightening in a sense).  In all the chaos of the climax, it looks like all the people shooting at each other are on the same side.

Ever since Bonnie and Clyde, America has always had a proclivity for movies in which we get to root for the bad guys, and this is just that.  We are able to find enough to like in the main character’s nature to forgive what shortcomings (or murderous, thieving tendencies) his nurturing and experience has brought about.  And come on, who’s really gonna hate Ben Affleck?  Remember how great he was in Pearl Harbor?  Wait, bad example…

Compared to Gone Baby Gone I feel The Town fell just short.  His first film had more philosophy and forced more introspection than did The Town, which is understandable, considering the first was about child kidnapping, sexual abuse, and murder, and the second was about a handsome thief stealing someone else’s money.  Plus, Gone Baby Gone was adapted from a novel written by Dennis Lehane, who also did Mystic River and Shutter Island.  Also, Affleck’s directing debut didn’t have any heavy shootouts in the streets with automatic weapons, which tended to be the only moments in The Townwhere we feel like we’re watching a Hollywood heist flick.

The Town will leave you satisfied, although slightly less satisfied than its predecessor.  There was only one of a few ways that the film could end, but there are definitely one or two unexpected moments along the way.  I’m glad I saw it, and I’ll be excited enough about Affleck’s next outing to go see that one, too (although I’m not sure how much of it would be residual excitement left over from Gone Baby Gone).  But a little advice, if I may:  Let’s spread the wings a little bit, and take your camera out of Beantown, Benji.  At least for now, we’ve seen quite enough of your back yahd.  Oh no…