By david roark
September 17, 2010
Ben Affleck’s second directorial feature, though formulaic in its latter half, never ceases to entertain, with gripping performances, sleek action sequences and flawless pacing. Affleck, again, proves that he knows what he’s doing behind the camera, as he looks to someday become Boston’s answer to Scorsese, which draws attention to the only major problem with his latest crime drama. Whereas Scorsese’s films have always been meaningful despite their violent subject matter, The Town is empty.
Set in Charlestown, “the bank robbery capital of America,” this adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves sets out to achieve the classic crime story of the gangster who wants out. That thug is Doug MacRay, played honestly by a scraggly faced Ben Affleck. A former hockey star who nearly went pro, MacRay is a veteran thief born into a life of crime by his Irish blood—and father (Chris Cooper), who is spending the rest of his life in the slammer.
When his gang’s latest heist has FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm from Mad Men) on his trail and key witness Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) in his bed, MacRay tells Jem—Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) with a thick accent, sporting a 'stache—and his Bostonian brothers that he’s done, moving to Florida. Before he can skip town, though, complications arise: As Frawley closes in, MacRay’s boss threatens to kill Claire, and Claire discovers MacRay’s true identity.
Forced to do one last job before getting free, MacRay finds himself in a mess. Affleck uses this part of the film to set up liberation for his protagonist; though not realizing it, he does just the opposite, exchanging justice for vengeance. MacRay may finally get what he’s after, but it’s not until he punishes those who wronged him. And the scenes in which this plays out are meant to please the viewer, as the protagonist murders his victims in style.
Moreover, there’s never a sense that something bigger is inspiring him. He feels bad for putting fear in Claire and tries to avoid hurting people on the job, but his ultimate motivator is to avoid getting caught because he doesn’t want to end up like his dad. As it plays out, MacRay has every opportunity to do what’s right, whether by turning himself in, staying loyal to Jem or rescuing Jem’s sister Krista (Blake Lively). Instead, his so-called deliverance comes through acts of self-interest.
This skewed portrayal of redemption, in the end, leaves The Town feeling cold and hollow, which is a tragedy because it’s such a riveting picture. With honest turns by every actor (particularly Renner and Hall, who anchor the film), a carefully balanced tone that uses both subtlety and emotion to grab the audience, and a realistic backdrop on the streets of South Boston, The Town is redemptive for Affleck’s career. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for himself in the lead.