I loved Ben Affleck's directorial debut Gone Baby Gone when I finally caught up with it on home video. It's a powerful, well-made mystery that doesn't go easy on the actor as a first project, and he pulls it off despite a few missteps. It's disappointing that The Town is simpler, a fairly old-hat story about a man looking to leave his life of crime behind for something better, but Affleck's maturity as a director is overwhelmingly evident, making up for most of his sophomore effort's deficiencies.
In addition to directing, Affleck stars as Doug McRay, who robs banks with the help of friends James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Albert "Gloansy" McLoan (Slaine), and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke). They get their jobs from The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite), who also used to provide assignments for Doug's father Stephen (Chris Cooper), currently serving a 40-year term in the local penitentiary. Doug tries to avoid loose ends and keep things quick and clean, but as the film opens, James is turning into a loose cannon, brutally assaulting a bank manager, and taking a hostage named Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Claire is just insurance, a bargaining chip in case the police show up, but after letting her go, they discover she lives four blocks away, and James becomes concerned that she might recognize one of them. Irked by his partner's itchy trigger finger, Doug keeps an eye on Claire, an activity that soon turns into a relationship with her.
I've never been anti-Affleck (I missed his string of late-'90s-early-'00s string of crappy romantic comedies and B-pictures), and The Town doesn't make me think differently. Affleck's turn as Doug isn't anything we've never seen from him before, but it's solid work, utilizing his natural charm without polishing away all of the rough edges. His Boston accent comes within throwing distance of unintentionally funny in a few scenes, and familiarity with the actor's personality from Kevin Smith audio commentaries might inspire an unintentional smile or two when he's being extra serious, but he stays on target throughout while juggling his various jobs on the picture. Hall has less to do, with the script (by Affleck, GBG co-writer Aaron Stockard, and Peter Craig, from Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves) generally calling on her to smile or look helpless, but when the film spotlights her (during a bathroom scene with Affleck, and a pivotal third-act phone call), she's at least as good as he is.
Eventually, Doug starts thinking about his future, and James finds out about his relationship. Not surprisingly, everything starts to blow up in Doug's face, starting with James trying to guilt Doug into staying and marrying his sister Krista (Blake Lively), continuing through a dangerous threat from the Florist, and concluding with FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), who is steps away from catching Doug red handed, with every intention of playing for keeps. During parts of this section, the film sags the worst; Renner, in particular, gets the short end of the stick with a character that is rarely, if ever interesting. James is a standard issue cocky idiot whose actions are clearly going to get everyone into trouble, and Renner can't or doesn't do much to elevate the role beyond the cliché. (The same goes for Lively, whose character Krista proves to be an even less interesting and generally useless role that could easily have hit the cutting room floor entirely). Thankfully, most of the boring "brotherhood" material is resigned to a single scene outside a graveyard, and Affleck remains strong regardless.
With those roles to the side, the primary conflict settles in between McRay and Frawley, and the rivalry is meaty despite the characters' physical distance from each other. Hamm and Affleck only share one scene in the movie, but the palpable drive of the Frawley character to catch McRay and put him away really fills in the blanks, even when the actors aren't in the same room. It's also appreciated that Frawley is rarely kind or noble in his quest for justice: he does it because it's the law, and he's here to lay it down, like he's stamping the period on the end of a sentence. I suppose it could be considered a cop-out in the sense that Frawley's cold, unforgiving attitude makes it easy to root for the more sympathetic McRay character, but nuance is always appreciated, and in the same way the movie offers McRay as a non-malicious criminal, it's nice to see a "good guy" who's kind of an asshole.
The film concludes with a tense, skillful finale that starts, well, in the heart of Boston (I'm sure Bostonites will be enthralled by the location) and continuing through several follow-up scenes, although the last two shots of the movie are a minor sour note. Gone Baby Gone has a great screenplay and so-so direction; that film looks good but occasionally loses track of its environment as "the real world", one that felt expansive and alive enough to exist around the camera in all directions. Despite a limited screenplay, The Town captures that feeling entirely, and remains as engaging as the material will allow. I can't help the feeling that the film is a baby step backward on a few fronts, but it's clear that Affleck is still a director to watch, with the hope that script and skill will fully align on his next outing behind the camera. Third time's the charm, right?
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