Is Warner Bros. trying to mold Ben Affleck into the new Clint Eastwood? Well, why wouldn’t they? Studios don’t maintain stables of stars anymore, but they can try to keep marquee talent happy enough to stay on the lot most of the time, much as Warners has done for Eastwood. Just when Affleck’s acting career seemed to be down-shifting, his first film as a director, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” surprisingly suggested that he may have more to offer behind the camera than in front of it, and there’s enough good about his new feature, “The Town,” to indicate that he may be that rare animal—a good-looking leading man who’s also capable of making intelligent, well-crafted commercial films.
Eastwood comes to mind not only because of the actor-director parallel, but because the working class Boston setting of “The Town” so forcefully brings to mind Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” another story in which the past maintains a malignant grip on its characters. Dennis Lehane didn’t write the novel upon which “The Town” is based (it was Chuck Hogan, with “Prince of Thieves”), but he just as well might have, so thick are the connections among the mostly Irish-descendent residents of these mean streets.
The streets in question are those of Charlestown, the section of Boston just north over the bridge from the city proper. Most famously home to the Bunker Hill monument, Charlestown is identified here as having the highest annual rate of bank and armored car robberies of anyplace in the United States. Doing its share to maintain Charlestown’s place in the record books is a small criminal crew led by Doug MacRay (Affleck). In the opening scene, the gang, masked and dressed like nuns, pull a rough job and take as a hostage bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), who’s shortly released.
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Prodded by his hotheaded cohort Jem (Jeremy Renner) to find out if the young lady is talking to the FBI, Doug chats her up in a laundromat and for the moment is able to allay Jem’s suspicion, despite the fact that Claire is, in fact, cooperating with federal agent Frawley (Jon Hamm). Tired of his trashy barfly girlfriend (Blake Lively, channeling Ellen Barkin), Doug bides his time with Claire, who’s utterly unaware that he was responsible for her momentary abduction; in his dreams, he would leave his past behind and take off with the woman who might well be the one he’s always looked for.
But this is not for him to decide, as Doug is beholden to a neighborhood crime boss from the old country (a disturbingly menacing Pete Postlethwaite) not inclined to let Doug retire gracefully. Doug also owes something to the ever-jumpy Jem, who just did nine years for manslaughter and lives only for the next heist.
As a director, Affleck is equally attentive to the narrative, psychological and action elements of the story; he gets good mileage out of Jem’s jitters about Claire and the resultant suspense over how long she can go without realizing who her new boyfriend is, soaks the proceedings in local color and handles the setpieces more than capably. The last of these is the boys’ most audacious job, a robbery at Fenway Park (during a Red Sox-Yankees series, no less) in which they pose as cops and hope to get away with millions. It may not be a suspense classic, but it’s crisply and professionally done.
The main shortcoming relates to Affleck’s handling of his own role. The actor is able to pull off the smooth guy stuff at the outset when Doug oh-so-casually comes on to Claire, and he’s either generous or unemphatic enough to allow Renner to both carry and steal all their scenes together. But Affleck never gets under Doug’s skin suffiently to fully express the character’s feelings about the con he’s pulling on a woman he thinks he could love, about the pain the squeeze he’s in is causing him and his regrets at the end. For the story fully register, Affleck the actor would have to go deeper, or at least do more than just suggest emotions. Doug has enough conflicts in him to be have been a rich and genuinely complicated character, but Affleck is unable to mine the potential riches.
Renner has the lion’s share of explosive moments and misses no opportunity to ignite, while Hall reveals an affecting vulnerability as Claire and Hamm is more animated than at his “Mad Men” norm. Behind the camera, Affleck smartly recruited two key Paul Thomas Anderson regulars, cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor, who deliver the goods.