In among the sometimes disheartening stream of new movies, it’s always a real pleasure to find a well made film that entertains and involves the audience. Take ‘The Town’ for instance, a picture with a fairly unexciting title that wouldn’t immediately make you want to watch it. I’d heard of it, but that was all and I’m now really glad that I’ve had the chance to view it. The film stars and is directed by Ben Affleck, who also had a hand in adapting Chuck Hogan’s novel ‘Prince of Thieves’ for the screen – so he’s been a busy boy. Affleck is one of those stars whose name would never have caused me to want to see a movie as he’s had a somewhat spotty acting career up until now. After having overcome these two barriers, viewing ‘The Town’ has caused me to see him in a new light with respect to both his acting ability and directorial skills.
‘The Town’ is set in Charlestown, an area of Boston with the rather dubious claim to fame of having bred more bank robbers than any other part of the good ole U. S. of A. It’s not so much the fact that just one member of a family might become a criminal, but that it’s the family business, if you like, with skills being passed down from generation to generation. While this may appear to fall into the ‘Not a lot of people know that’ category, it explains the mindset of the characters of this film. They’re well practised professionals. Doug MacRay (Affleck) is one such career criminal who, with his father in prison, has grown up with his rather trigger happy pal James or Jem (Jeremy Renner) in a dangerous neighbourhood.
The film opens by throwing us straight into a bank robbery. We see that they have planned it in meticulous detail and execute it in a methodical manner, right down to removing the hard drives from the bank’s security camera system and nuking them in a microwave. Here though, we see for the first time the hot headed behaviour of Jem as he can’t resist beating up a bank employee who he believes to have triggered the alarm. As they leave, they take a good looking female manager, Claire (‘Vicki Cristina Barcelona's Rebecca Hall), with them as a hostage but later release her safely. It’s only when they examine her stolen documents that they realise she lives just around the corner from them and they may well meet her on the street one day. Although assured that she could have seen nothing due to their disguises, Affleck’s character offers to keep her under surveillance to ensure that she does not pass on anything incriminating to FBI agent Frawley (‘Mad Men’s Jon Hamm). Things don’t exactly go to plan when after a chance encounter in a laundrette, Doug begins to fall for the lovely lady. From then on, this is the vehicle that propels the movie forward as he tries not to tell her who he really is and what he really does for a living, while at the same time executing a couple of robberies. Does Claire find out? Do they get away with the robberies? Do they fly off to an exotic location together? You’ll have to watch it to find out – and it really is worth watching.
I won’t try to kid anyone that the film is totally original. Indeed, you could imagine that at the pitch to Studio Executives it was probably sold as “ like ‘Heat’ meets ‘The Usual Suspects’ but more gritty.” There are strong shades of both movies here in both the characters and storyline. You could also say that there are bits of every heist movie you’ve ever seen. Where it succeeds is in the way it’s all put together. After the initial bank robbery, we’re given time to get to know the characters and to learn of their backgrounds, to find out what made them the way they are. You get to care about MacRay and you see the vulnerability of Claire as the trauma caused to her by the robbery works its way to the surface. We discover that MacRay is on a three job deal, being held to it by ‘The Florist’, underplayed with a casual menace by the late great Pete Postlethwaite. That man had the most incredible, beaten up looking face that seemed to step right out of the 1950’s and his screen presence belied his acting experience. The few scenes that he has in ‘The Town’ are the most memorable as he acts the others off the screen.
I have to admit to not being a great fan of mobile, handheld ‘shaky cam’ but it can be very effective if used sparingly at the right moment. The robberies are shot in this style with some quick cutting to deliver the intense feeling of heightened senses, yet it all works in a very fluid manner. After the robberies are over, the movie goes back to ‘conventional’ tripod mounted filming so the audience is not made to feel dizzy for the duration, only when director Affleck wants it to happen. That’s someone who knows how to use the right tool for the job. Speaking of which, Affleck also chose the right look for the film. It has a gritty appearance that you can almost feel on your teeth due to the slightly raised contrast as well as the use of directional lighting in many scenes.
There are several exhilarating car chases through the back streets of Boston as the gang are pursued by Police and FBI. The well organised robbers make their getaway in one car, then ditch it and torch it, before transferring to another planted stolen car which they later abandon and burn out before jumping into a third car. I have to admit to being impressed by the clinical planning of the robberies, right down to dressing up in Nun’s habits and masks as it leaves nothing of their identity visible. The gunfights as they take on the Police are pretty much full on, with a realistic depth to the thud of the shots - aided and abetted by the surround sound. The pacing causes a quickening of the heart beat due to the immediate, almost documentary style of the coverage. You’re really routing for the robbers as you want them to get away.
All in all, ‘The Town’ is a very competent piece of modern film making that’s a refreshing change from the many mind numbing Hollywood blockbusters. Nothing in the storyline insults your intelligence, yet there’s enough excitement and drama to keep most audiences hooked from start to finish. Go out on ‘The Town’ tonight.
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