24 September 2010

Visit Boston! - THE TOWN Review

Hiding under the yoke of an entirely innocuous title, The Town is Ben Affleck's second directorial effort after the superb Gone Baby Gone. It's about a gang of highly skilled and meticulous thieves in Charlestown, Boston- an area that we're told has produced more bank robbers and car thieves than anywhere else on the planet.

When the clean-up of a bank robbery gets messy, Doug, the brains of the operation, forges a relationship with Claire, the bank manager they took hostage. Claire is unaware of their connection to each other, but dogged FBI agent Frawley is doing his utmost to find any evidence to incriminate the gang and send them to prison for life.

Having seen Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone and now The Town, I think Ben Affleck's trying to tell us something about Boston in his writing. He hates the place. He really just has contempt for Boston- although the latter two films are more about how everyone who lives there is a scumbag, even Good Will Hunting has Affleck's character threatening to kill Will if he doesn't get out of their shit hometown and make something of himself. Not to say that it's a verité perspective on the city, but let's say he's not concerned with tourism films.

Whether Boston's a corrupting force or a symbol around which criminal elements rally, there's no denying that it's a character all by itself in Affleck's directorial works so far. In The Town, we see that he's grown as a director since his first film, developing a mean eye for what makes a great action sequence as well as making some edge-of-the-seat intense moments without the need for jump-scares or chase scenes.

The narrow sidestreets of Charlestown make for a surprisingly claustrophobic car chase midway through the film, one of the standout sequences of the year, but there's just as much excitement in a scene where three characters sit together at an outdoor diner. Affleck's less remarkable in front of the camera than he is behind it, but he certainly gives a much better performance in this than he has elsewhere. And it's so perfectly acted by the rest of the cast that it's hard not to give credit for his perfect casting of those other roles.

While it's a film that's better than any one of its performances alone, there are almost too many fantastic turns in it, without enough room to breathe. For me, the standout was Mad Men star Jon Hamm as Frawley, a cop who's decidedly less dapper than Don Draper, but he's relentlessly watchable. He's better than your average tenacious FBI guy because of some of the excellent dialogue he gets, which Hamm delivers with an acid tongue and a knowing smirk. Jeremy Renner is also marvellous as Jem, Doug's volatile best friend- a loose cannon played so well that we could've stood to see a whole lot more of him.

If anything, that's the major drawback of The Town. While it's a somewhat welcome deference to 1970s crime drama crib-sheets, its supporting characters are never entirely fleshed out. Not that I need or want to know everything about underused characters played by Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite or Chris Cooper, but the performers put so much into them that you wish they could be explored more. Although it works for Cooper and Postlethwaite, who make blistering impressions in their respective brief roles, the women of the film are sidelined.

It's a very macho film, to be sure, but that's no excuse for the way Blake Lively and Rebecca Hall's Claire are so easily forgotten by the viewer at certain stages. Lively gives a career-changing performance, de-glamming enough that she convinces as the damaged-goods hooker who trails around after Doug, but she doesn't have much to work with in the sprawling narrative. It's particularly unforgivable with Hall though- happy as I was to see Frawley connecting the dots and zinging perps with verbal barbs, Claire's relationship with Doug serves more as an inciting incident than a compelling romance.

If only these problems had been redressed, I would really be trumpeting The Town as a serious contender at the next Oscar ceremony, and perhaps after snubbing Gone Baby Gone, the Academy may feel they at least owe Ben Affleck one of the ten Best Picture nominations. What holds it back from being up there with the very best of the year is in how he doesn't explore his characters as thoroughly as he did in his debut feature. There's nothing here so thought-provoking as to parallel the jaw-dropping decision that Casey Affleck's character makes at the end of Gone Baby Gone.

The Town does make an old formula seem very fresh and exciting by way of its excellent direction and outstanding cast, but it's slightly lacking in character depth. It's supremely understated, but simultaneously more commercial and accessible than Gone Baby Gone. It's clear that Ben Affleck will shake off any detrimental reputation very shortly if he keeps this up- he's an even-handed director who could go on to carve out a career as great as Clint Eastwood's. In the meantime, enjoy an intense crime thriller that's smart enough to excuse any flaws.

The Town is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen The Town, why not share your comments below? If Affleck does carry on making films of this calibre, I'm really serious about that Clint Eastwood thing- he just needs to get the Boston rage out of his system first...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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