As a big fan of Ben Affleck's directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, I wasn't entirely convinced that The Town was a complete step forward for him as a filmmaker when I first saw it in 2010. Although it proved Affleck's technical skills were improving, his screenwriting skills took a step back, offering a tired story of a career criminal trying to leave it all behind. Cut to 2012, and Warner Bros. has brought out a new Blu-Ray edition of The Town featuring not only the previously released extended cut, but a version of that cut that continues through to a never-before-seen alternate ending.
On top of his directing and screenwriting duties, Affleck stars as Doug McRay, a one-time pro hockey prospect who's been reduced to taking over the family business: robbing banks. Doug's crew consists of James "Jem" Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Albert "Gloansy" McLoan (Slaine), and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), and he picks up their jobs from The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite), the same man who gave Doug's father Stephen (Chris Cooper) the assignments before Stephen landed himself a 40-year term in the local penitentiary. Doug's a professional, looking to get in and get out with the least amount of trouble, but Jem's a loose cannon. During the heist that opens the film, Jem brutally assaults a bank employee he suspects of tripping the alarm, and unexpectedly takes manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage.
For the most part, the performances are quite good, specifically Affleck, Hall, and Jon Hamm as FBI Agent Adam Frawley, whose slimy cockiness makes for an interesting battle between a sympathetic bank robber and a slightly despicable cop. Renner turns in a predictable performance for a predictable role, but he does a good job of it, embodying the worst kind of stubborn, know-it-all hotshot who thinks he's learned all he needs to know about what he's doing because he saw it on television. Only Blake Lively really stumbles, offering a caricature of a performance that's as much about her bras being visible as it is anything she's doing with her eyes or the delivery of the lines.
As with many similar crime films, one of the simplest problems I have with the film is that the characters, despite the obvious danger he presents, continue to put up with Jem. Doug's a smart guy, and he clearly not only knows how to play things safe, but also the amount of risk Jem is introducing into their operation by beating bystanders and taking hostages, and yet he does nothing about it, allowing Jem to keep shoving everyone's neck out into the open in the name of some misplaced sense of loyalty. In a scene past the halfway point, Affleck and co-writers Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig peel back a little of their relationship, but it isn't enough; regardless of what he may have done for Doug in the past, he's still about to ruin everything in the present.
On the other hand, we can accept that Doug, in his attempt to tail her and make sure she doesn't know anything that would identify any of them, would fall for Claire. In the extended footage, there's a much better sense of how much responsibility Doug is carrying on his shoulders, not just from the robberies but from Jem, from dealing with The Florist, and from Jem's sister Krista (Blake Lively), who keeps putting the "on again" pressure in their "on again, off again" relationship. To Doug, Claire represents the simple, peaceful life he wishes he had, far away from Charlestown and the criminal life. In one effective edit, Affleck flashes back to Claire, on the beach, having been let go after the robbery, and the way Doug embodies the sense of relief she felt when she felt the water at her toes, and removed her blindfold to see the sky.
The shorter theatrical edit of the film placed more of the emphasis on Doug and the bank robberies, but the leisurely nature of this extended cut allows for more of the relationship between Doug and Claire to take center stage. There's more of a sense of the things that change Doug's mind, of his thought process as his feelings for Claire become serious. Although the Jem and Krista characters remain somewhat obnoxiously stupid, and there isn't enough reason for Doug to put up with them, the overall tone of the film suggests less of an impending avalanche and more of a series of dominos, toppling toward an inevitable point where it all goes bust. The film may not sell the idea as well as I want it to, but I'm at least willing to consider that Jem is less the product of a flawed screenplay and more that Doug naively believes just one more job stands between himself and a happy future.
Of all the moments in the original version, however, none struck me as quite as wrong as the film's final shot, which -- without giving it away -- was a dose of syrupy sentimentality that felt less like the gritty bank robbery film that came before it and more like a page torn out of a Shawshank Redemption knock-off. If you've seen that version, I bet it's not hard to guess what happens in this version, but it's interesting to see how this ending still utilizes many of the same pieces. The Town still feels like it could use a breath or two of fresh air, but this new cut of the movie (despite one redundant edit) feels like a more complete picture, and although there are still a few blemishes on the veneer, they're more in keeping with a director beginning to stretch his wings.
The Video and Audio
"The Town: A Director's Journey" (30:00) is a decent documentary that provides a good overview of the whole production through a new on-camera interview with Affleck and plenty of B-roll and film footage. He talks briefly about the things that attracted him to the project, the challenges of directing and acting at the same time, the experience working with many of the actors on the film (including Pete Postlethwaite, who passed away shortly after The Town was released). In the second half, he also details his thought process behind many of the extensions and changes in the alternate cut of the film, including the new ending. Affleck coems off a little cheesy here and there, but for those who aren't prone to watching special features (i.e. won't have any interest in hearing him cover the same subjects in the commentary), this is the featurette for you.
The film's original theatrical trailer is also included, although for some reason Warner selected a version that includes an introduction and a voice-over at the end, as if it played on TV somewhere.