A Tale of Two Townies.
On the one hand, THE TOWN seems to be the movie Ben Affleck wanted to make with GONE BABY GONE – a tough, suspenseful actioner with enough lonely heart to drive it to a tragic climax; on the other hand, Affleck bows to numerous conventions that rob the movie of originality. Yet as director, co-screenwriter and star, Affleck executes the tale well, with terse direction, street cred kineticism and a three-day growth to die for.
The blue-collar neighborhood of Charlestown, Boston, we are told, “has produced more bank robbers and armored car thieves than anywhere in the world”; a federal agent opines, “Bank robbery became like a trade in Charlestown, passed down from father to son.”
Affleck is Doug MacRay, tacit leader of a group of organized bank robbers who grew up together on the mean streets of Charlestown, Boston. During a holdup, volatile gang member Jem (Jeremy Renner) decides to take a teller hostage, Claire (Rebecca Hall), who is later released unharmed. While shadowing Claire to ensure she doesn’t alert the police, Doug ends up dating her, to the chagrin of Jem, who was considering the safer and more fun solution of raping and killing her.
Jem would follow “brother” Doug into hell, would beat the shit out of anyone at Doug’s whim, or do jail time for Doug without a whimper; as with any family, he expects reciprocation, but suspects that in dating the teller chick, Doug is getting the street whipped out of him. He’s right.
Claire is not a “townie” (from Charlestown), but an out-of-towner that the locals call a “toonie.” Doug sees in Claire a person who can lead him out of the small pond where he is a big fish.
GOSSIP GIRL Blake Lively is Jem’s sister and Doug’s longtime throwaway lover.
Chris Cooper is Doug’s jailed dad, who has kept a damning secret about Doug’s mum all these years.
Pete Postlethwaite is Fergie, the flower store mob boss whom all the thugs pay royalties; Doug, begrudgingly. (Postlethwaite is at last beginning to look his age; whereas he was eternally 50 for the last 20 years, now he actually looks at least 51.) When Doug wants to walk away from the thug life, Fergie won’t let him.
(Sadly, this would be Postlethwaite’s second-last role before his death in January 2011 at – I would never have guessed – 64.)
Doug finds himself trapped between two worlds when Fergie’s hoods come after him to – ironically – keep him in the business, while the FBI (led by MAD MEN’s Jon Hamm) wants to put him OUT of business; while naive Claire thinks he’s just a mysterious guy who gives good square-jawed lovin.’
Renner gives another nutso performance as Jem, always going off-book to create more violence than necessary. Having done nine years inside, he dreads going back in, so warns Doug before their last heist, “If we get jammed up, we’re holding court on the street.” When Renner played the bomb disposal expert in HURT LOCKER, his unpredictable edginess made him a hero. Playing the same character here, now he’s anti-hero! Or nutjob. (In the military, you’ve got a license to be crazy; in society, you’re an outlaw for the same character traits. I’m not saying every trooper is unbalanced – but it helps. Conversely, the unbalanced get a pass from society BECAUSE they join the military. Now jarheads are going to come unglued at that statement because – as is always the case – they didn’t read it right.)
Filmed in harsh, cold tones; gritty, tight, visceral, like the inhabitants of its cloying streets, THE TOWN offers us a love-hate dichotomy, also like its inhabitants: “I’m proud to be from Charlestown. It ruined my life – literally – but I’m proud!” Even though these thugs rule the streets, yet they long for a better life elsewhere.
From the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, despite the film’s toughness and originality (the most striking disguises they use are the rubber-faced nuns; blessedly iconic!), the conventions threaten at every turn: the good-hearted thief, the loose cannon, wanting out and being pulled back in, the FBI guy who takes it personally, the beautiful chick a paragon of niceness (volunteering for a boys and girls club, community gardening), the Big Shootout where the gang dies in reverse order of screen billing, and the worst offender of all, the “one last score so I can walk away with my dream girl” convention.
Affleck’s director’s cut runs 4 hours, and I trust the conventions would have more depth in that version. He doesn’t need to prove himself any more as director, writer and actor, displaying a solid grasp of subject matter and story structure… but in caving to test audiences for the film’s theatrical release, instead of a journey to a wild place beyond our safety zones, he gives us just another night on the town…