TIFF: Ben Affleck's 'The Town' is a conventional but gripping crime drama
Ben Affleck is, at heart, an extremely conventional storyteller.
One of the earliest reviews I sent to Harry Knowles in my time at Ain't It Cool News was for an advance screening of "Good Will Hunting," which I liked quite a bit. Still do, and unreservedly. The film's open sentiment is a big part of the surprise punch it packs, and it amuses me to think about the other versions of the film that existed at various stages of the film's development as a screenplay. The final version is a fairly simple boy meets girl story crossed with the story of the troubled but gifted artist who just needs a hug to succeed. It's the way "Good Will Hunting" is told, the specific energy of the film's version of Boston, the characters, the details of the power struggle between Damon and Williams. That film pushes buttons like mad, and Gus Van Sant has to be given credit for making such a blatantly, carefully commercial film.
At that point, you can't really be sure, even with the Oscar win, how much of the finished film was Matt and Ben's screenplay. There were whisper campaigns at the time about the film's authorship, but I've talked to enough credible people about the film that I think the script really was theirs. And they tried to get together on something else several times over the years, and it didn't really work out. Damon's taste seems to be reflected in the material he chooses as an actor, and there's a sort of a rejection of sentiment in a lot of his work. He seems to be drawn to flinty characters who are decent but unpolished in some way, and even his biggest commercial project, the "Bourne" trilogy, is gruff, cold, brutal.
With "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck finally asserted his own choice, and I think it's appropriate that he was one of a few filmmakers taking a shot at Dennis Lehane's work. I really like "Shutter Island," but I sort of intensely dislike "Mystic River." I think "Gone Baby Gone" is a strong, simple film, told with sincerity. It's that element that tied that film to "Good Will Hunting," and it's the same thing that ties both those films to his latest directorial effort, "The Town."
Aaron Stockard, Affleck's co-author on "Gone Baby Gone," worked with him here to adapt Chuck Hogan's novel, Prince Of Thieves, working to overhaul an early draft by Peter Craig. The film tells the story of a group of men, lifelong friends from Charlestown, a neighborhood that is known for producing more bank and armored car robbers than any other town on Earth, picking up mid-spree. Doug MacRay (Affleck) is the leader of a crew of guys who have gotten very good at hitting difficult targets. As the film begins, they hit a small local bank, and when things go a little south during the job, one of the guys on the crew, Jem (Jeremy Renner) takes a hostage, a lovely bank manager named Claire (Rebecca Hall).
They release Claire before the main title even shows up onscreen, and the entire rest of the movie is about the way a single crime reverberates through the community. "The Town" is largely successful, impressively acted, impeccably shot by Robert "There Will Be Blood" Elswit, and it tells its story with an impressive eye for what makes Boston special. I love filmmaking about a specific place, where your location is a character just like anyone onscreen, and Affleck's Boston is impressively rendered as a real place. Jeremy Renner gives a superheated performance as the team's loose cannon, and Jon Hamm's unflappable special agent character gives him a few key moments to play and relish. Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper show up as bad fathers, both figurative and literal, watching out for Doug as he struggles to find some way to walk away from everything, both of them milking relatively little screen time for everything they can.
The two women in Doug's life are both the most important things regarding his character and the weakest written. Blake Lively plays Jem's sister Krista, a Townie like them, and she's a sort of a shambling train wreck, constantly high on coke and oxy and drunk, all while carrying around her infant daughter. The kid isn't Doug's, but he's got history with Krista, and Jem has some vague dream of domestic bliss involving all of them in the future. Doug has other ideas, though, ideas that come into focus when he goes to check out the hostage from the bank job, Claire, to see if she's got anything she can tell the FBI to hurt them. At first, he goes just so Jem won't, because Doug can see that Jem is starting to enjoy causing grievous bodily harm to anyone, for any excuse. Rebecca Hall invests Claire with a sort of fleeting fragility, and it's a very appealing performance overall. Even so, there's not much to her. She's a symbol of a better life, a woman who volunteers, working with kids, tending her garden. She's everything Doug wants in his life, all wrapped up in one package and delivered right to him. Neither one of them is bad in the film, and they've both got moments, but they're not quite tangible enough for us to understand the gravity they exert on Doug in his life.
I think this is an old-fashioned good yarn, well told, a little more impressed with itself than it should be considering how simple the story is, but sure to satisfy adult audiences looking for something with some meat on the bones. When the film opens, that's pretty much the starting gun for the fall season, and I'd say Affleck has kicked the season off right. It's a conventional crime drama done right, and a solid, if inconsequential, affirmation of the voice that Affleck is developing as a director.
"The Town" opens everywhere September 17th.
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