Friday, September 17, 2010

The Town: Home-Field Advantage

The Town (2010) • View trailer for The Town
Four stars (out of five) • Rated R for violence, profanity and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.17.10
Buy DVD: The Town • Buy Blu-Ray: The Town (Extended Cut Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

Ben Affleck certainly absorbed the gritty atmosphere that permeated his impressive directorial debut, 2007's engrossing adaptation of Dennis Lehane's crime thriller, Gone Baby Gone.

Affleck also co-scripted that drama, and we must remember  back before he became tabloid fodder  that he shared a well-deserved Academy Award with longtime buddy Matt Damon for the screenplay to Good Will Hunting. Affleck can be forgiven his ill-advised detour into Hollywood exploitation, particularly if he continues to rebound so well.
Doug (Ben Affleck, left) and Jem (Jeremy Renner),
disguised as Boston police officers, get ready to snatch
the massive volume of cash taken during an extended
weekend at famed Fenway Park; their two associates,
busy elsewhere, are prepared to bypass security cameras
on cue. Then everybody will help gather bundles of
money in the "safe room" before making a well-planned
getaway. With such meticulous attention to detail, what
could possibly go wrong?

The Town, a grim saga of violent young men in dead-end lives, will feel familiar to fans of Lehane's equally absorbing depictions of misguided hometown loyalty and the inability to conquer one's upbringing. This is a bleak environment where nurture definitely trumps nature, and where the only apparent way out of one's native turf is horizontal, in a box.

The Town is co-scripted by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, based on Chuck Hogan's novel, . As he did with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck capably directs a talented ensemble cast; as also was the case with Gone Baby Gon because nobody can forget Amy Ryan's Oscar-nominated performance as a young mother from hell  Affleck gets strong and memorable performances from both young actresses in this new project.

Perhaps emboldened by the critical approval granted Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has advanced a step and granted himself the starring role in this saga of crime in the streets. If his own performance pales slightly next to those from the rest of the cast, he shouldn't be too concerned; Affleck hits the appropriate melodramatic beats, and holds his own against some heavyweight co-stars.

He's certainly not intimidated by working with top-drawer talent, and that bespeaks career savvy; after all, it's the only way we learn.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, a disheartened thirtysomething who blew his one chance  via a talent at hockey  to escape Charlestown, a one-square-mile Boston neighborhood saddled with the unpleasant reputation of having spawned more bank and armored car robbers than anywhere else in the United States. Now back among the guys he grew up with, he's the cautious tactician behind a series of ruthless heists with Jem (Jeremy Renner), Gloansy (Slaine) and Dez (Owen Burke).

We meet them during the commission of a typically well-planned bank job, which goes mildly awry when Jem needlessly brutalizes one of the bank officers. He compounds this mistake by impulsively taking a hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). After dithering a bit, and thanks to Doug's calming influence, Jem agrees to drop her off, still blindfolded and bound at the wrists, but otherwise unharmed.

Claire has been ordered not to talk to anybody; Jem has added weight to this threat by taking her driver's license, thus proving that he knows where she lives. Unfortunately, in so doing, all four are appalled to discover that she lives within shouting distance of their own haunts, leading to the possibility that they'd pass her on the street. Granted, they were masked and she was blindfolded, but Jem doesn't like the possibilities.

Doug, correctly sensing that Jem's lack of impulse control might result in murder  it has happened before  volunteers to "investigate" Claire, to see whether she's cooperating with law enforcement. An orchestrated 'casual encounter' has unforeseen results when Doug develops feelings for her, which soon are reciprocated: an unforeseen situation that he knows can't be shared with Jem and the others.

But this is, as we've learned, a very small neighborhood.

Renner, every bit as mesmerizing as he was in The Hurt Locker, is a combustible nightmare as Jem: all twitches, suspicious frowns and the sort of deceptive smile one would expect from a crocodile about to dine. This guy couldn't be more tightly coiled, and Renner's modulated tension literally leaps off the screen.

Even so, he's only one of several storm clouds that eventually envelop this story: precursors of mortal peril.

Jem's relationship with Doug is complicated, not least because they literally grew up together, and also because Doug once had a thing with Jem's sister, Kirsta (Blake Lively). She's now a deadbeat single mother with a young child, and no inclination to quit her life of drinking, drugs and turning tricks.

Doug feels no responsibility  we're told the child isn't his  but Kirsta's unwillingness to let him go complicates the already fragile dynamic that also involves Jem. Where almost everybody else looks down on Doug for having tried to flee the neighborhood, Kirsta views him as her own chance to get the hell out of Dodge, if only he'll try again ... and take her with him.

At the same time, Kirsta recognizes the futility of this vain hope; Lively delivers this duality with shattering disillusionment.

Hall, though, wins our attention and empathy. She's simply amazing, particularly in the wake of the early robbery scenes, as Claire tries to pull herself together while experiencing post-traumatic stress. Her hands shake ever so slightly; her eyes have the panicked, fight-or-flight glaze of a deer trapped in headlights that never wink off. She's terrified but determined to pull herself together: an impeccable acting balance.

And here comes Doug, intruding into her life under false pretenses that he can't correct, even when he later wants to. We sense the impending betrayal, and bleed for the degree to which Claire will be injured anew. Hall owns our emotions.

The various robberies haven't gone unnoticed, particularly after the violence of the most recent incident. The forces of law are represented by a "toonie" (outsider)  FBI Special Agent Frawley, played by Jon Hamm  who has been paired with a "townie" (local), Boston police detective Dino Ciampa (Titus Welliver). Both are familiar acting faces, often seen in solid supporting roles; Hamm, in particular, brings an appropriate level of righteous determination to his part.

Chris Cooper appears briefly as Doug's incarcerated father, glimpsed only during one scene set at the state's maximum-security prison in Walpole. Father and son have one prickly conversation with echoes that surface during a later encounter Doug has with Fergie Colm, a florist who's actually the local front for money laundering, drug dealing and other criminal enterprises. Colm is played by the incomparable Pete Postlethwaite, who makes the guy flat-out scary.

Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) varies both grain and color palette, depending on geography. Doug and his buddies inhabit grimy, dark-hued streets that match production designer Sharon Seymour's dreary buildings, whether dive bars or cheerless apartments; the mere act of breathing seems unhealthy here, as the very atmosphere Elswit captures seems laden with fine particles of soot.

In contrast, Claire's world is brighter, cleaner and cheerier, particularly when she seeks refuge by toiling in a community garden.

Superficially, The Town bears similarities to the recent Takers, which also opens with a heist meticulously masterminded by a capable crew of young thugs, and then climaxes with an even larger  and ill-advised  caper. But the protagonists in Takers don't feel terribly real, and the fusillade of gunfire at the end is strictly cartoon violence ... whereas every well-placed bullet in Affleck's film makes us flinch, certain of the likely damage to characters who've become quite real.

Which is not to say Affleck avoids some of the basic genre demands. He stages a great vehicular chase roughly midway through this narrative: all the more exciting for the care with which it's filmed, so that we're easily able to follow every turn and shriek of torn metal. Editor Dylan Tichenor clearly understands that such scenes don't work if too many smash-cuts render the action incomprehensible; points to him and Affleck for doing it properly.

With two accomplished dramas under his belt, I wouldn't be surprised if Affleck started spending even more time behind the camera; indeed, I hope he does.

Ironically, Boston may not appreciate Affleck's skill, because this much is certain: I can't imagine anybody wanting to move to Charlestown any time soon!

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