Ben Affleck follows up Gone Baby Gone, his unexpectedly adept directorial debut, with another crime drama set against the backdrop of his hometown. Charlestown (aka The Town) is a Bostonian neighborhood which has produced more armored car and bank robbers than any other town in America. (A plot point that is surprisingly true.) In the hands of these working class Irish (is that redundant?), bank robbery is more than just a cottage industry; it’s a trade to be passed down generation to generation. But these criminals are decidedly old school. They steal from banks not people, and strive to leave innocent bystanders uninjured although their track record on that latter of those two is admittedly spotty. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, an NHL washout and second generation criminal. He leads a disciplined, highly skilled team that takes down banks with pinpoint precision. They know how to beat alarms, work around vault combinations, avoid dye-packs and destroy surveillance footage with meticulous attention to detail. But the wheels start to come off when James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), the group’s wild card, decides to take a hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). In an attempt to determine what both she and the police know, Doug surreptitiously checks in on her (after she is released unharmed). There is an instant attraction and they begin a relationship.
The Town is a quiet film with bursts of action. While it has “heist movie” elements, I’d hesitate to classify it as such. It’s a contemplative film; much more concerned with its characters than the mechanics or adrenaline rush of thievery. It’s a mood-driven character study reminiscent of ‘70s era crime dramas. But when it’s time for action, Affleck delivers. However, he keeps his action firmly grounded in reality with the cinematic exception of the fact that people (even those with automatic weapons) are horrible, horrible shots. The chase scenes aren’t filled with over-the-top stunt-show acrobatics but instead are matter-of-fact endeavors in which cars are constantly bumping, touching and scraping their way through the grimy streets of Boston. Drivers fight their way through traffic all the while dodging pedestrians in ways reminiscent of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, which I’m sure is no accident given that Affleck starred in Frankenheimer’s final theatrical release (Reindeer Games).
As for acting, Affleck gives a quiet measured performance as our conflicted hero. He longs to leave his larcenous ways behind him but walking away from a life of crime is easier said than done. While his accent slips I’d need a second pass at the film before I could officially consider it a strike since I think it might be a deliberate choice, coming and going and as he toggles back and forth between his childhood friends and his gentrified girlfriend. (What linguists refer to as “code switching”.) Hall, as said girlfriend, strikes the perfect balance as a smitten crime victim. And Renner, as Doug’s loose-cannon partner-in-crime, shows that he’s capable of more than the stoicism he exhibited in The Hurt Locker (and just for the record, that’s not a knock against either performance).
Clocking in at 130 minutes, the film could use some tightening. Some scenes linger for longer than they should or meander to their finish. And Affleck does fall prey to some filmmaker clichés (time-lapse shots of rolling clouds = metaphor for impending doom…we get it). But Affleck is two-for-two as a filmmaker, and has a gone a long way towards resurrecting his acting career in the process.