Oct 5, 2010

Film Review: The Town [15]

Dir: Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck took everyone by surprise a couple of years ago, by turning in a muscular, high quality, directorial debut in Gone Baby Gone. For his follow up Affleck hasn’t strayed far from the territory of his debut, turning out another Boston set crime film. The Town is set in the Boston area of Charlestown, which apparently produces more thieves per capita than any other area of the US. Affleck, adapting a novel by Chuck Hogan, focuses on a group of bank and armoured car robbers, centred around lifelong friends Doug (Ben Affleck) and Jim (Jeremy Renner). During a bank heist they take manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage, and as the police and FBI (personified by Mad Men star Jon Hamm) begin to look closely at them Doug attempts to ensure that Claire doesn’t know too much, falling in love with her in the process.

Ben Affleck may not be the best actor in the world, but he’s more than just “the bomb in Phantoms”. He’s solid here, never letting the side down, even though he is in many respects the weak link from a performance standpoint. He’s best when sharing scenes with better actors, establishing strong relationships with Renner and Hall, and sharing a quietly explosive scene with Hamm. Where Affleck really does his best work in The Town is behind the camera. He draws strong performances from an interesting cast. Renner is excellent as Affleck’s impulsive right hand man, making Jim a man who always seems to have an itchy finger hovering over some sort of trigger, especially in the tense scene in which he first sees Affleck and Hall together. Hamm also makes a strong impression, bringing a real sense of purpose to what might otherwise be a thin role as the FBI man chasing Doug and his gang. In smaller roles Pete Postelthwaite struggles a little with a broad Irish accent, and manages little menace as local crime boss ‘the florist’, but Chris Cooper is effective in a single scene as Affleck’s father.

Perhaps even better are the film’s leading women, played by two of the more interesting young actresses working in Hollywood. Rebecca Hall is customarily excellent as Claire. Her trauma after the kidnapping is convincing, but never overplayed, and (at least until the end) Claire’s relationship with Doug works well and is convincing. She’s nothing so trite as the film’s moral centre, but she is the most straightforward person here, but Hall never lets that become an excuse for making Claire two dimensional. Blake Lively’s part as an old flame of Doug’s was initially written for an actress fifteen years her senior, but Lively apparently lobbied hard for the job, and it is easy to see why she won it. Lively’s performance is completely unencumbered by vanity, she plays Krista (who, it is implied, is something of a Charlestown good time girl) as a young woman made old before her time, thanks to life dealing her a bad hand. At first she seems incidental, but her role grows in the film’s third act, and Lively grows to fill it. Taken with her role in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, this suggests that she’s going to be an interesting, daring, character actress over the next few years.

The Town is by no means original; in fact, it is generic to the core. The story is that old, old one of a career criminal forced into that ‘one last job’, and perhaps being redeemed by the love of a good woman. That said, the performances help lift it beyond just another exercise in genre, and so does Affleck’s handling of the three major heist set pieces. None of them is exactly radically different to what has gone before, but each has its own specific feel, each is executed energetically and excitingly and, happily, the geography is clear in each and every scene, so we always know exactly what is going on (something that seems undervalued in many action scenes lately).

The Town isn’t going to change anyone’s world, and it would be nice, next time, to see Affleck attempt something in another genre (and perhaps another city), but this is a solid, entertaining, crime thriller.

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