The second directorial effort from Ben Affleck is a very interesting film and another in a recent spate of movies that I have found a challenge to review (I still haven't gotten around to "Machete" or "Animal Kingdom" and at this point too much time has passed for me to review them properly). It has so many elements we've seen before. It's a heist movie, it's cat and mouse between cops (the FBI in this case) and robbers, and it's a drama about a relationship that is steeped in lies. If a movie acknowledges that we have seen these things before but gives us interesting characters that we care about then that's perfectly okay. In a way, that's what "The Town" is. But in another way, it's a movie with scenes of such stark brutality that it demands to be taken seriously. This was the cause of the struggle I had with "The Town."
Doug MacRay (Affleck) is the leader of a crew of bank robbers from the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, which we learn produces more bank robbers than anyplace else in America. When Doug, his best friend James (Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"), and two others take down an armored truck and a bank in one fell swoop, things don't go quite according to plan. They get the money and they're able to escape easily enough but the bank's manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, "The Prestige") has set off the silent alarm. They decide to take Claire hostage in case the police come after them. When it seems they're in the clear, they send her away blindfolded. Despite the fact they were wearing masks panic sets in when they learn that Claire lives only a few blocks from them.
The trigger happy James considers extreme measures when it comes to Claire. Doug however would rather handle things himself. To find out what she knows he bumps into her in public and after turning on the charm, asks her out on a date. The two become emotionally attached almost immediately. She confides in him that she is scared of what might happen to her if she talks to FBI Special Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"). Frawley is determined to capture the crew responsible for the robbery and Claire's kidnapping. Matters are complicated further when James finds out that Doug has gotten close to Claire.
With a screenplay by Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard, "The Town" is a movie that asks us to sympathize with a career criminal who met the woman he supposedly loves by robbing, kidnapping her, and then letting her become involved with him without knowing the truth. Believe it or not this actually could work but despite the things that Doug goes through it still feels as though the movie lets him off the hook. There are many questions raised regarding character motivations or decisions, particularly at the end, which I won't spoil for you.
Despite some of the film's shortcomings and occasionally muddled nature, this is a well produced and mostly well acted movie. Being the director and a co-writer, Affleck seemed to have a good idea of what his strengths would be in playing Doug. The character is not a good man, but Affleck gets us to like him anyway. As I said though, the movie is too lenient on him. Just because he's yet another movie criminal who "doesn't shoot anyone," he's still a criminal brandishing a deadly weapon and who works alongside a guy who has no qualms with killing. I'm willing to let criminals off the hook in movies like "Ocean's Eleven," "Snatch," or "Grosse Point Blank," because we're not asked to take them seriously. They're comic fantasies that are either about harmless thieves having fun, a bunch of idiots who just end up killing each other, or a guy who's not as bad as Dan Aykroyd. "In Bruges" is a perfect example of a movie that manages to put its characters through the appropriate wringer. We genuinely like them but they're getting what they deserve and we know it.
Hall gives a good performance but Claire left me scratching my head on a few occasions. Renner, "Hurt Locker" aside, plays yet another character I spent most of the movie wanting to slap in the face. James is a thoroughly unlikeable hothead whose inability to keep his finger off the trigger does more harm for his crew than good. As James' sister and on again off again "girlfriend" of Doug's, Blake Lively ("Gossip Girl") demonstrates an inability to talk. Maybe that's just the character but it's not a very impressive performance. As Doug's main adversary, Hamm gives a solidly good performance. Affleck's direction seems confused in regards to the character however. It feels as though late in the game he decided that we shouldn't like Agent Frawley because we're supposed to be rooting for Doug. In the end, I still liked Frawley whether Affleck wanted me to or not.
"The Town" is a deeply flawed movie but all things considered a pretty good one. Even when it's frustrating it's still very watchable. 7/10.