Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Town

(Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall in The Town/dir. Ben Affleck, Warner Brothers)
       The Boston enclave of Charlestown has always been one of the most scenic locations in the city, and a major tourist attraction to boot. Ben Affleck and company care about this fact in a most malicious way. What they want us to know is that Charlestown is also the most crime-ridden spot in Boston, with a history of gangs and robberies that stretches back decades. Several quotes provided at the start of the film introduce the neighborhood as such.  So although the geography of the neighborhood is covered, as if we are watching some ultraviolent travelogue, and although the camera keeps returning to the outstanding Bunker Hill monument, these are just cynical launching points for the moral corruption that lies at the heart of this city.
            The corrupt ones we meet here are Doug MaCray (Ben Affleck), a hoodlum since childhood, who is running his own small gang of thieves, including best friend James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) and Albert Magloan (Slaine). His former hoodlum father (Chris Cooper) sits in a prison for the rest of his life, while his sometime-girlfriend and the sister of Coughlin, Krista (Blake Lively) hangs out at the same bar each night, in a reliably altered state of consciousness. Doug needs a real woman, and he meets her through the most unlikely circumstance possible; after robbing a bank—the scene that opens the film—Doug finds himself taken by the pretty bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) who opens the safe for him and his buddies at gun-point. He encounters her a few days later in a Laundromat and, seeing that she is still traumatized by the robbery, takes her out later that night. The relationship that ensues between them—she completely unaware of who Doug is, he falling in love with her while using her to get information on the F.B.I—is the shakiest, most dangerous step either of them could take. Yet neither of them seems to realize it. Not even Doug, who knows the FBI is on his tail, and that it is only a matter of time before his girlfriend finds him out. He follows through on another planned heist anyway. He gets in further over his head with an old rival of his father’s (Pete Postlewaith; nearly funny, completely sinister). He also finds time to buy Claire a necklace.
            It’s a great setup; a suspense film where there is no mystery, the female lead actually has nothing to hide, and there’s enough violence to tip it in to action movie territory. The way Affleck (who directed) approaches the material is appropriately aggressive, yet very awkward. For an actor, he does not seem to trust other actors to fill in a scene when the camera is at a loss. The best performance in the film nonetheless comes from Jon Hamm, who plays the F.B.I agent Adam Frawley, the man assigned to round up Doug and his partners. Hamm never tries to be the center of attention, speaks his dialogue in spare, domineering tones and steals every scene he is in. Watching Hamm rush down Lansdowne Street with a shotgun in his hand makes him look like both a brutal, cold action hero, and the most sensible guy around. The same can’t be said of the other actors, though they all do a competent job. The accents are authentic and the chemistry between Affleck and Hall is just right; that is, almost there, but severely strained.
            It is the film’s awkwardness in other respects that drags it down. Affleck shoots the film, with cinematographer Robert Elswit, in emphatic close-ups and establishing shots that try to rein everything in. He seems to have taken his cues from Martin Scorcese and John Woo. Yet he has an unhealthy obsession with time-lapse photography and the supposed glories of slow motion. More complicated, however, is the very tangled script. This could be because there were three writers (Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard), or because they wanted to be all too faithful too the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves on which the film is based. Either way, we get lost. First, the relationship between Doug and Claire starts to move to the center of the story. But Affleck spends too much time on the friendship of Doug and Albert, the latter never coming off as anything more than a deplorable creature. It is predictable enough that eventually Claire will find out the truth about the man she has been seeing; but this happens halfway through, and afterwards, we have to endure a few highly implausible scenes and actions by certain characters that reduce our sympathy for them. Affleck tries to balance things out by throwing in a few more scenes with Doug and Krista, but these come so close to the end that they feel distracting. None of this is a failure of technique so much as a failure of ambition. The film wants to be about love and honor; friendship and betrayal; personal demons and guilt. Slow down, Tolstoy.
(Jon Hamm in The Town/dir. Ben Affleck, Warner Brothers)
            The crispness of the whole affair wins out in the end. The three heists—at the beginning, middle and end— provide enough of a framework to stabilize the film. The final showdown, staged outside Fenway Park in an event that provides more entertainment than the Red Sox could ever muster, is a blast, literally. This is probably the best film about Boston made in at least a decade, but in being the best, it also shows how far cinema has to come with this city. It makes one want to see a genuine local perspective on Boston crime. So far, we’ve gotten this through the fiction of Dennis Lehane and several other crime writers, but nothing in film. For this reason, The Town is at its best when it is locally oriented. Short scenes near the beginning show Affleck walking down the streets of Charlestown, at night and during the day, while the chatter of him and his buddies plays on the soundtrack. They will resonate with anybody who has roamed the streets of this town, either to wrestle with themselves, or for the hell of it.