THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
With 2007's Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck showed great promise as a director. With The Town, he solidifies his status as a filmmaker worth following. Once again returning to the streets of his native Boston, Affleck has fashioned another gritty, compelling crime thriller that offers equal parts excitement and substance. Except for the tacked-on ending (which compromises about 60 seconds out of a 124-minute feature), he also shows a willingness to go against traditional Hollywood formula, to go where the story demands rather than to where the audience feels safest. That's the mark of ambition, and also what makes The Town so totally engrossing.
The story is set in Charleston, a real Boston neighborhood known for spawning an uncommonly high percentage of bank robbers. Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, one such criminal, who in the opening scene pulls off a bank heist with his best friend/right-hand man "Jem" Coughlin (The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner) and some other cohorts. The too-edgy-for-his-own-good Jem insists on deviating from the plan by taking the bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), hostage.
They ultimately drop her off unharmed, but Jem wonders if she might be able to identify them through the masks they were wearing. Doug starts following her to see if there's any indication of this. There isn't, and the two strike up an acquaintanceship that eventually blossoms into romance. When Doug hears how traumatized Claire is from the situation, he begins to feel badly. He even contemplates getting out of the bank robbing business, but the low-life mastermind of the heists, a florist named "Fergie" Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), doesn't intend to let him go. "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm plays FBI agent Adam Frawley, who is tracking down Doug and his crew, further complicating his thoughts of escape.
The Town has all the bank robbing action you could want, plus a couple of really suspenseful escape scenes. Affleck knows how to stage such sequences so they feel authentic and not too movie-ish. Even when the guys don nun masks to rob a bank, it seems creepy and dangerous rather than silly.
Underneath the crime-related matter lies much examination of human emotions. Doug's convict father (Chris Cooper) and his runaway mother both figure into the psychology of why he robs banks. His ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively), who also happens to be Jem's sister, is trying to tie him down by using a child that isn't even his. He's dating a woman whose trauma he is directly responsible for. He wants to go straight because of his feelings for her, yet loyalty to Jem makes that easier said than done. It's natural to sit upright and pay attention to a movie when a group of masked robbers walks into a bank with semi-automatics; the beauty of The Town is that it keeps you every bit as hooked when you're just watching two people talking. The emotional action is just as gripping as the physical action.
Every single performance feels natural, with Renner and Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona) doing work that could potentially net them Oscar nominations. Affleck is terrific too, giving himself one of the best roles he's ever played. As I said, the final minute of The Town feels a bit out of sync with everything else, but that isn't even close to being a fatal flaw. This is a powerful movie, one that is refreshingly smart and grown up. I hope Affleck chooses to keep working on both sides of the camera.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Town is available on DVD or in a Blu-Ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack on December 17. The film offers you a choice between the theatrical cut or the extended director's cut, which is about 20 minutes longer and offers more character details, including a scene in which Doug uses cocaine, and more of the romance between Doug and Claire. Ben Affleck provides audio commentary on both versions, explaining why certain scenes were/were not left in the final cut.
The other extra is a series of six “Focus Points” - short making-of segments that total 30 minutes. They are centered around topics such as how one of the fictional bank heists was inspired by a real one, what it was like to film in Boston, and how Affleck performed writing, directing, and acting duties on the movie. The focus points are well produced and interesting to watch.
The Town is a very good film that is worthy of repeated viewings. It looks terrific on Blu-Ray.
The Town is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.