Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Town Movie Review: Ben Affleck's Second Film as Director Shows He's Not a One-Hit Wonder

Film noir of the 1940s and 50s, with its dark subject matter, antihero protagonists, chiaroscuro lighting and often down endings, is largely regarded as an offshoot of the place of the American psyche following the harrowing years of WWII. Likewise, the resurgence of the genre, dubbed neo-noir in the 1970s (including films like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye), reflected the public’s attitude toward the downward spiral of the American empire in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam.

So one might think that today’s political climate – two wars with no end in sight, one of them started on dubious evidence, a financial crisis the likes of which no one has seen in more than 70 years – would foster a another slew of noir films. And it has – in a way. In recent years, novelists and film makers have veered toward noir subject matter, but this neo neo-noir doesn’t look a whole lot like the genuine article. This new version tends to come with happy endings and a lighter touch. Will audiences simply not accept the unhappy ending these days in spite of the great challenges we face?

 The novels of Dennis Lehane have been a treasure trove of noir stories taking place in and around Boston. To both his credit and to the writers who have adapted his work for the screen, Shutter Island and Mystic River are decidedly not Hope and Change stories. Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone, adapted and directed by Ben Affleck in 2007, is a prime example of neo neo-noir (or noir-lite, as I’d prefer to call it). Affleck has returned to the director’s chair for this year’s The Town, adapted from Charles Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves.

But even if the material doesn’t exactly live up to the promise of the best urban crime drama of the golden age, Affleck has now shown that his first directorial effort was not a fluke – his real talent lies behind the camera, not in front of it. To be sure, his performance as Doug MacRay, a bank robber from the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, is the weakest in the film. As a director of action, he is adept at executing the slow crescendo. It was almost masterful the control he demonstrated for his first outing. The Town, however, does start with an action set piece – a bank robbery, but one fraught with tension rather than bullets.

The manager of the bank in question is Claire (Rebecca Hall). They take her as a hostage briefly for their getaway and later Doug takes an extracurricular interest in her, engineering a “meet cute” in a Laundromat – and thus begins a romance. The other major characters are Jem (Jeremy Renner) as Doug’s lifelong friend and partner-in-crime, and FBI Special Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), the lead investigator in the bank robbery. Hamm gives Frawley the same assertive professionalism he brings to Don Draper in “Mad Men,” but a little less smug and much less morally suspect.

Beginning with a premise like this you know that at some point Claire is going to find out who Doug really is and that there will probably be a big showdown shootout during the final robbery. Given that, the only thing left is the execution of the story. In that respect, it’s fairly obvious that the style draws a great deal of inspiration from Michael Mann’s Heat, not only because the team of robbers wears intimidating masks and carries semi-automatic rifles, but also in the way both cops and robbers are depicted as methodically working toward their goals.

But The Town is about more than cops and robbers and it’s even about more than a neighborhood which the film boasts has produced more bank and armored car robbers than any place in the world. The opening titles contain two quotations: one from a federal agent stating that “robbery became like a trade in Charlestown passed down from father to son;” the other from a resident claiming that he’s proud of his neighborhood despite the fact that it ruined his life. This brand of nihilism infects the movie from Doug’s father (Chris Cooper) serving a prison sentence for similar crimes to the daughter of Doug’s sometime lover Krista (Blake Lively), whose life is marred by substance abuse and whose daughter is likely to fall into a similar lifestyle.

Doug seems born of the Charlestown life, but perhaps ill-suited to it. He doesn’t envy his father’s prison sentence. He is grateful, but probably unwilling to reciprocate, for Jem’s having served nine years in prison to protect him. And he harbors a bit of sentimentality over his long lost mother, who disappeared when he was six years old. If anyone was born to extricate himself from this life, it’s Doug.

Perhaps the biggest misstep Affleck made, along with his writing partners Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, in trimming down the book to a serviceable length was in failing to excise or nearly eliminate Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite), the so-called man behind the curtain of Charlestown. If it’s illegal, he’s probably got his hand in it. Doug and his crew report to him and when Doug pulls a foolhardy stunt ripped directly from the handbook on cops and robber pictures (he refuses to do one last job) an extra bit of drama is manufactured when Fergie threatens Claire if Doug fails to follow through.

Fergie’s presence seems only to confuse matters for the sake of adding some extra and frankly unnecessary tension at the end. It may have been more expedient to reduce his character to make room for some additional character development of the main stars.

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