Sunday, September 26, 2010
Modest Pleasure: The Town
As an actor, Ben Affleck is no Robert De Niro. As a director, he’s no Michael Mann. And so it should come as no surprise that The Town, a film about the leader of a band of heavily-armed bank robbers who puts a promising new romance at risk in the name of one last score, is no Heat, despite its many plot similarities. But that The Town doesn’t attempt to be Heat, and especially that it doesn’t attempt to outdo that classic macho opera, is what makes Affleck’s film a delightful success. Simply put, The Town is a movie with no delusions of grandeur that wins us over with its relative conservatism. In his second directorial effort, Affleck takes a clichéd and motivationally problematic screenplay (that he helped write) based on a novel by Chuck Hogan and fashions it into something familiarly and dependably entertaining. Rather than looking to dazzle us with narrative uniqueness (think: Inception) or with explosive tonnage (think: Michael Bay, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, etc.), Affleck bows out of the treacherous one-upsmanship arms race in order to let his film stand confidently yet humbly on two too often ignored pillars of success: setting and character.
The Town takes place in Boston, and more centrally in the neighborhood of Charlestown, and with the Bunker Hill memorial obelisk looming in the background of so many of cinematographer Robert Elswit’s long shots we can never forget that. In actuality, I’m sure a good number of the film’s exteriors were shot outside the state of Massachusetts, but to anyone except a Bostonian such technicalities are incidental. That The Town’s setting feels distinct is what matters. And with its clever appreciation of Boston’s horse-and-buggy-era city planning (more on that later) and it’s memorable race to and across the Charlestown Bridge, The Town does such a superb job of establishing its setting’s particular eccentricities that the film’s climactic chapter at Fenway Park feels a little like unnecessary (and trite) piling on. Then again, Fenway and its Red Sox are an indelible part of Boston’s identity, and so shooting there is an appropriate gesture for a film that repeatedly demonstrates a fondness for character. With Affleck’s Doug serving as the store-bought vanilla cake, providing an underwhelming yet inoffensive base layer, the film’s numerous supporting players deliver the decadent icing: from solid performances by John Hamm as the determined FBI agent and Rebecca Hall as the vulnerable love interest, to the just-shy-of-campy turn by Pete Postlethwaite as Charlestown’s crime boss, to the rousing performances by Jeremy Renner as a live-wire thug and Blake Lively as a single mom and neighborhood tramp whose dirty vivacity is remarkably tempting, even if you wouldn’t dare shake her hand without sliding into a pair of latex gloves.
None of the above characters is especially deep, but depth isn’t The Town’s aim. Likewise, none of these characters is memorably larger than life, and that’s OK, too. If Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino show the value of lavishly colorful characters, The Departed shows how such vibrancy can become as garish as Liberace if overdone. The Town isn’t trying to win any dick swinging competitions with Tommy DeVito, Ace Rothstein or Frank Costello. Nor is it aiming for gritty street realism. Instead, its characters are just realistic enough to make us think that there might be some real-world validity to Lively’s hard-partying Krista, Postlethwaite’s intimidating Fergie and Renner’s dangerous James, but more than anything these players are elements of drama, not truth. The Town isn’t a celebration of cinema in the style of Quentin Tarantino, but it does play on our shared understanding of the organized-crime/gangster genre, happily meeting our expectations rather than trying to subvert them or overcome them. Just like horror movies deliver blood and Westerns deliver horses and shootouts, The Town comes packed with “one last job,” the promise of a better life beyond it and the moral contradiction of wanting to see the bad guys get away with it and get their just due. The film’s allure is precisely that it’s familiar, with just enough distinctiveness to keep it from feeling redundant.
The Town’s signature moment (mild spoilers ahead) is, of all things, a car chase. And amazingly enough, that isn’t a backhanded compliment. Countless action films strive to be vehicularly memorable, but most fail because they have no unique characteristic, no genuine inherent urgency (a reason for all the cars involved to be moving at high speeds) and no clue that the more excessive a car chase gets the more tedious it tends to become. Miraculously, The Town avoids all of those pitfalls. Unique characteristic? All those tight Boston roads and alleys, which like Bullitt’s famed chase through the hills of San Francisco make the chase as much about where it’s happening as what is happening. Genuine urgency? Well, the thieves have just held up a bank and unloaded machine guns at cops who have them nearly surrounded; so there’s as much reason to give chase as there is to flee, and those aforementioned city streets leave little choice but to speed forward or backward. Excessiveness? The chase is lengthy from start to finish but it’s broken into three swift and distinct acts: an initial confrontation, a pursuit through the streets and a race for the bridge. None of those acts overstays its welcome, and when all of that is done the chase ends at the place that you might have least predicted: a clever sight gag that should tell you everything you need to know about how seriously this movie takes itself. With its low-level shots capturing the claustrophobia of the neighborhood and the velocity of the chase, The Town is about delivering throwback fun.
In the car chase, and in a volatile shootout at Fenway Park that closes the film, The Town caters to our action addictions without pushing us to overdose. Sadly, it would be a better overall film if it showed similar restraint in its approach to plot’s core love affair. Because while Affleck and Hall make the romance between Doug and Claire just believable enough, theirs is a storyline that goes from dubious to absolutely preposterous. Sure, in Heat, Eady stays with Neil after learning the truth about him. And in The Godfather films, Kay tries to remain blind to Michael metamorphosis. And in Goodfellas, Karen falls for a guy she knows is up to no good. But in none of those cases does the man commit what could rightfully be called emotional rape on his female love interest – not until they’re married, at least. From the very start, the character of Doug is problematically drawn: unlike On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy, he knows exactly what he’s doing all along, and like Heat’s Neil his motivation for getting out is purely selfish. Yes somehow The Town takes the odd position that Doug was a moral guy all along and that he goes through some love-inspired change, and yet the only thing consistent about his character is how comfortable he is pointing a machinegun at someone. None of it adds up.
But, so be it. Other than the film’s laughably tragic final shot, the Doug-and-Claire relationship is a mild annoyance. And, thankfully, for every moment of romantic squishiness, there’s one in which we can thrill to Renner’s quiet intensity, or Lively’s heartbreaking desperation, or the adrenaline rush of a bank heist. Sure, this is all stuff we’ve seen before. And we’ve seen it done better. But we don’t often see it done this well. And when a movie dares to succeed just by doing things capably, we should receive it in kind. In the big picture, criticizing The Town for not rivaling Heat is as misguided as condemning it for not taking place in L.A.