Just like in his 2007 directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, Ben Affleck shows a true understanding for character, tension, and setting in The Town. Just like before, he uses the city of Boston as his setting, and creates an authentic portrait of the people and the way of life. It's not just a setting, and it helps make it feel like we're not just watching characters up on the screen, but people with real lives. He understands the city and its inhabitants the same way filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen understood New York in their classic films.
Affleck (who stars, co-wrote, and directed the film) also knows how to play his audience's emotions. There's a brilliant scene that is so tense and tight, and yet free of manipulation. There's no music cues, and no close ups of the main character sweating. In fact, under normal circumstances, it would be just an ordinary scene. But because we hold knowledge that two of the characters in the scene don't, it's full of heart-pounding tension. In the sequence, a career criminal named Doug MacRay (Affleck) has an unwelcome visit from one of his colleagues in crime, a loose cannon named Jem (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker). His arrival comes at the worst time, as Doug is currently seated at a table with a woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall), who noticed the tattoo on the back of Jem's neck during a bank robbery. If she notices the tattoo, everything is certain to fall apart. Doug looks about uncomfortably, and tries to drop hints to get his friend to leave, but the guy just doesn't get up, and keeps on talking. It's a brilliantly executed and nerve-wracking scene.
Doug and Jem belong to a small group of professional bank robbers in Charlestown. The opening titles inform us that Charlestown is known for more bank and armored-car robbers in one square mile than anywhere else in the U.S. In this blue collar working community, crime is passed down through each generation, almost like a family business. Doug comes from such a family, as his father (Chris Cooper) is currently serving multiple life sentences. There was a time when Doug seemed like he was on his way out of this life. He had a promising future as a professional hockey player, but it didn't work out. He came back to his hometown, took a menial job, and now plans bank heists on the side with three of his best friends. Jem is the wild card of the group, prone to violence and rash decisions. We see this in the opening scene when, during a job, Jem viciously beats a man whom he suspects triggered the silent alarm, and takes the bank manager, Claire, hostage. This is how Claire briefly noticed the tattoo on the back of his neck, before they blindfolded and eventually released her.
This is not the end of it, of course. They learn that Claire lives in the local neighborhood and, fearing that she may help the cops identify them, Doug sets up an "accidental" meeting with her in a laundromat. He was wearing a rubber skull mask during the heist, so she does not recognize him as one of her captors. Doug intends to strike up a relationship to find out what, if anything, she knows, but then he begins to genuinely fall for her and build a true romance with her. He even begins to see her as his way out of Charlestown. Jem sees this as a betrayal, and it sets up some obvious, but no less powerful, tension within the group. Meanwhile, a special agent named Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is leading the FBI closer to the identities of the robbers, and is asking for Claire's help.
The Town certainly sounds derivative on paper, and in lesser hands, probably would be. But the energy and tension that is built between the criminals, as well as the fragile relationship between Doug and Claire, gives the story tremendous force. I admire the way that the screenplay does not rely solely on heavy-handed melodrama. This is a movie of quiet power that builds and builds to a fast-paced climax. At the center of it all is Doug, who really just wants to lead a normal life, but always finds himself pulled into doing just "one more job". There are people all around him who know how to use his feelings for Claire to get what they want from him, particularly a local crime boss named Fergie (Pete Postelthwaite), who doesn't want to lose Doug's services. The fact that the screenplay allows these characters to talk and think like real people, rather than walking crime drama cliches, allows us to sympathize with them every step of the way.
This is no more evident than with the character of Jem who, as played by Renner, is unpredictable and off-key. He's violent, prone to fits of uncontrollable rage, but also a sense of loyalty to him. It's a complex character, and a fantastic performance by Jeremy Renner, who never seems to show the same side of the character twice. Even if he's repeating an emotion from a previous scene, he still finds a different way to handle it. It's a captivating performance to be sure, and one that is in good company in this film. Everyone brings dimension to what would be stock characters under normal circumstances. No one quite leaves the impression that Renner does, but then, the movie doesn't spend as much time with them. Even Doug seems to be pushed to the wayside at times, but Renner is constantly commanding.
If The Town does not quite have the same impact of Gone, Baby, Gone, it's only because the story is a bit too familiar at times. It's certainly no fault of the talent at hand. With only two films under his belt as director, Affleck has proven himself a true talent, and a master at drawing emotion out of his scenes in a subtle manner. He knows how to bring the most out of his actors, and even his settings. Affleck is a real filmmaker, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
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