THE TOWN B
USA (123 mi) 2010 ‘Scope d: Ben Affleck
A film that seems to be an anthem to Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood known for its generational proclivity for armed robbery and car thieves, that is told with such a solemn tone that is bears a resemblance to Spike Lee’s 25th HOUR (2002), which became an homage to 9/11 in New York City, as in both films, there’s an underlying acknowledgement of the terrible price of lives lost, yet there’s also a lyrical upswing, as both feature oddly poetic gestures of hope, of a world that could somehow be just a little bit better. First and foremost, the film is beautifully immersed in Affleck’s home town, his one true love, the working class neighborhoods of Boston, which is such a prominent element of the film that it’s significant that they got it right, that it doesn’t in any way look glamorized. This provides the film with needed authenticity, as everything else that happens is from within this structure. Affleck’s got his house in order here, and so too are his actors, which amazingly includes a first rate performance by the director himself, probably the best in his career, but also his supporting cast, where the most suspenseful scene in the film is an otherwise uneventful lunch with his partner in crime Jeremy Renner, who is so completely unpredictable and close to beserk that he channels the manic energy of James Cagney, a psychotic hoodlum with a sadistic streak. The twist here is that the film is a profile of a group of professional bank robbers and thieves, whose intimate portrait is usually reserved for the good guys, but here the cops and the FBI are the so-called bad guys, as the real bad guys are given such favorable onscreen treatment. There’s a precedent set for this by Matt Damon in the BOURNE TRILOGY (2002 – 2007), but the set-up there is that he’s a trained assassin who can’t recollect his past, but discovers the secret service from his own country is trying to kill him, creating a razzle dazzle of action sequences where one needs a scorecard to tell the good guys from the bad. Here Jon Hamm plays the malicious FBI agent in charge who comes across as the heavy, as he’s continually twisting arms in an attempt to crack the solidarity among thieves who continuously look out for one another, using less than subtle techniques in order to make his arrest. Early on he knows who the crooks are, which he figures out pretty easily, but he hasn’t a shred of evidence to nail anyone.
This is a white knuckles bank heist thriller that moves with electrifying energy, that shows with meticulous precision how heavy weapons can prevail in a bank robbery, how people are compliant when a gun gets stuck in their faces, as the overriding concern under the immediate circumstances is not the bank, but that no one wants to die. This film shows how easily one arrives at that heart pumping moment when you’d do anything to comply. In a well executed heist, this takes about ten seconds, at which point it’s up to the robber’s sophistication to find out how to get the maximum reward in the least amount of time. This particular crew is shrewd at covering their tracks, confident they are leaving no evidence behind, as their skill set in their profession is near brilliant. All throughout though we’re expected to believe these are just a couple of boys from the block. There are more changes of professional uniforms shown here in the course of their dirty business that by the end, one wonders where the telephone booth is that Clark Kent uses to change into Superman. Any team this good would probably have mob connections, but this appears to be a ragtag bunch of guys from the old neighborhood who just happen to have grown up together. Chris Cooper excels in a scene as Affleck’s father in prison, where the generational ties run deep, yet he exudes a fatherly anger and despair at his helplessness to change his circumstances. In one of the best scenes, the police pull them all in for questioning, where Affleck recognizes a local cop from the neighborhood, asking that cop what he would call someone who grew up in a poor but close-knit neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else’s secrets and then used that information to put away as many of them behind bars as possible? This is followed by macho maneuvering by the FBI where Affleck instantly realizes they have nothing on him. But this is the heart of the film, as neighborhoods are comprised of friends with well kept secrets, which is why they remain friends. In Charlestown, everyone has secrets, as everyone knows somebody that’s affiliated with crime.
While this is a character study of a criminal group psychology, it also shows Affleck as a conflicted and unwilling participant, as after awhile he wants out, where there’s something of a hugely contrived love story at the center of all this with Rebecca Hall, where he envisions a different life for himself through his connection with her, where thoughts run through his mind similar to Brian Cox’s dream sequence spoken to his son Monty (Ed Norton) at the end of 25th HOUR, where a single decision could affect the rest of his lifetime, as it could literally reconnect an entirely new set of possibilities. Much of this turns out to be Affleck fighting as much with his own partners, who don’t want him to leave, as with his condemned soul, where he’s trying to find a redemptive path. This doesn’t have nearly the punch or the redemptive poetry of the Spike Lee film, one of his best, especially coming so soon after 9/11, but Affleck does generate astonishing suspense, as these guys are always on the alert for getting caught, always living on the edge where something could go wrong at any moment, yet the audience is mesmerized by the brilliantly well executed heist sequences and the frantic car chases which are among the best on celluloid, though in typical Hollywood fashion one notices for all the bullets flying, few people get shot. It’s a surprisingly well-paced film throughout, entertaining as hell, leaving an ambiguity at the end which may be challenging for the audience, as it can be a bit confusing telling the good guys from the bad. Even with Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger in PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009), we knew he was a bad guy, a crook with a heartless soul, but Affleck’s character is still left struggling for his, as if there’s the slightest possibility that he could turn into a decent guy, even when all the evidence points otherwise. This sleight of hand trick may work for some, as a good lead performance can charm the pants off of anyone, but the real talent here is not in any real character development, as in the much superior Australian film ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010), but in the kinetic energy displayed in the chase sequences mixed in with the suspense of some daredevil heists.