MacGuffin Film Review – The Town

Film Review – The Town

The Town (2010) is a hot-blooded potboiler of a crime film.  It is a throwback to the crime movies of the 70s, where cops and robbers fought it out on the mean streets of the city.  In many ways, it’s a lot like a western, but instead of horses, you have cars, instead of saloons, you have sports bars, and instead of the O.T. Corral, you have Boston’s Fenway Park.   As a follow up to his superb directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), Ben Affleck shakes off any notion of a sophomore slump.  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, as a director, Affleck is the real deal.

The story here is a familiar one.  Opening quotes tell us (almost with pride) that a certain area within Boston, known as Charlestown, is host to the highest number of bank robberies in the country per year.  Among these thieves is Doug MacRay (Affleck), a tough and street-smart criminal who won’t rob a bank without knowing all the names, addresses, and family members of the employees that work there.  He and his crew work with airtight efficiency: taking down surveillance cameras, knowing all the alarm triggers, and removing any signs of evidence.  They do this disguised in less-than-subtle masks and costumes.  The nun and skull masks they wear during their jobs reminded me a lot of the President masks used in Point Break (1991).

Like all movies featuring skilled and technically sound criminals, things start to unravel when one of them deviates from their very strict code.  This happens when MacRay meets Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), an assistant manager to one of the banks he robbed.  At first, MacRay follows her to make sure she has no way of identifying any of her assailants, but when he makes the mistake of interacting with her, the situation gets tense.  She is the single factor that can give the crew up to the authorities, and MacRay knows this.  So does MacRay’s long-time partner James (Jeremy Renner), an explosive wild card of a criminal, who will stop at nothing to prevent going back to jail.

So why does MacRay interact with Keesey in the first place?  Perhaps because she is the one person who actually listens to what he has to say.  The film makes a point of showing MacRay growing up without a stable support structure: his mother was a drug addict who abandoned the family, his father was a criminal who remains behind bars, and the only form of intimacy he has is in the form of a young, cocaine filled single mother (Blake Lively).  Keesey represents the only good thing MacRay has, and obviously one would not what to give that up so easily.  But after sharing personal information, and ultimately falling in love with her, he puts the entire crew at risk, with determined FBI Special Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) hot on their heels.

The best way to catch a criminal is to expose their weaknesses, and that’s exactly what Agent Frawley does.  With one part of the film involving the tension between MacRay, Keesey, and the crew, the other part works as a police procedural, as Frawley uses criminal records, identifying tattoos, known acquaintances, and past romantic relationships as tools to put the squeeze on his targets.  In a particular scene at a bar, Frawley uses the same level of skill and expertise as MacRay does to lure, corner, and trap a person of high interest.  As an actor, Hamm uses the charm and sophistication he brings to the television show Mad Men, and adds a bit of grit to his character here.  The scene at the bar is great at showing how Frawley uses his intelligence to get what he wants, without ever having to cross the line.

As a director, Affleck has the skill to show the suspense and tension that the actions scenes in the film require.  At the same time, he also has the patience to let his camera sit back and allow the story to unfold.  Affleck allows ample time for his main character to develop, there a number of scenes featuring two people talking, but these scenes do not drag.  They are effective, to the point, and gives a look in to each of the characters that they present.  On the other end, there are about three to four major action scenes, and Affleck captures them with kinetic energy.  During one of the crew’s heists, they get chased by police authorities through the city streets.  These roads are small and narrow, buildings surround them, cars block their way, all causing a claustrophobic feel.  Guns blaze out from both ends loud and viciously, in the same style as the memorable shoot out in Heat (1995).  The climactic battle sequence is down and dirty.  This is not a glossy, hyper realistic kind of action, but a realistic, aggressive, and dangerous type.  I appreciated the fact that the action and stunt sequences were used with practical effects, it gives these scenes a nervously immediate tone.

The film however is not perfect.  The first issue I had was the lack of supporting character development.  MacRay’s emotional arc is handled well and completely, but the other characters were fairly one-dimensional.  Jeremy Renner, fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in The Hurt Locker (2008) is interesting and engaging as the unpredictable James, and I would have liked to have seen more come from him than only his criminal record.  Agent Frawley is a smart and skilled investigator, but nothing more than that.  All the other characters revolving around MacRay seemed to be put there to only serve his story line, without ever really having a hint of their own.  Another issue I had was the simplicity of the plot.  The story we see here is the same as many other heist and crime films of the past, some of which I’ve already named in this review.  It is a reasonably straightforward film, where what’s important is the journey instead of the destination.  Without needing spoilers, one can easily see where the film is headed and how all the characters will ultimately clash, but this is handled so well that I found myself forgiving it for that.      

Overall, The Town is a strong film made by a promising director who’s only just starting to develop.  Despite a somewhat routine plot, the good acting by all involved combined with tense and suspenseful action sequences result in a highly enjoyable crime drama, and a good start to the fall and winter movie season.  Hopefully Ben Affleck will continue the trend of working behind the camera along with working in front of it.  He has made two very good movies, and I can only see his career as a director going up.  Who would’ve thought that the man who’s career was at an all time low only a few years ago would make such a comeback?

Final Grade: B+

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