Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cops, Robbers, and Something More -- Reflections on "The Town" (2010)

"I swear, Officer, it was Mother Teresa who robbed that bank."

When I was a kid, just learning how to write, my dad used to tell me to "write what you know." Ben Affleck's dad must have been telling him the same thing because when he goes to write a script, he seems to come up with something about the darker side of Boston. Whether about a poor misunderstood genius in Good Will Hunting, a missing child in Gone Baby Gone, or cops and robbers in The Town, it's clear Affleck is in his comfort zone working on films about his hometown.

His comfort zone is good for us, too. The Town, like the other two films I listed, is an excellent movie. Affleck continues to prove, as with Gone Baby Gone, that he is a talented filmmaker. He puts his personal stamp on this one, painting Charlestown -- a borough of Boston about one-square mile -- in loving strokes while still showing the menace lurking beneath its quaint exterior. And he populates the film with characters whose faces are distinct and colorful, giving us a sense that this world exists and moves outside of the actions of its characters. These touches are what elevate the film above the cop and robber genre, making it a tense drama about tough choices, harsh consequences, and the gray area in between.

Affleck also stars in the film as Doug MacRay, a professional bank robber from a town known for producing them (as the introductory titles tell us). The film opens with Doug and his crack team robbing a bank. Unfortunately, a bank alarm is tripped by the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), so Doug is forced to take her hostage. His partner, James (Jeremy Renner), gets Claire's driver's license, and after letting her go, decides to follow her to see how much she tips off the cops. Doug doesn't like the idea of James, a wild card who just finished a nine year stint in prison, doing this and takes the job himself. He winds up falling in love with her, putting her, himself, and his team in jeopardy.

You can't have robbers without cops, though. And the cops come in the form of the FBI, led by special agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm). He's hot on the case and seems to take Doug's bank robbing business a little more personally than we'd expect a government agent to do.

This set-up is nice for a typical heist film, but Affleck has other things on his storytelling agenda. He uses the climate of impending doom to delve into the unstated culture of borough communities, address class issues, and show the power of deception on a person's heart and soul. I'm not trying to say that The Town is profound by any stretch of the imagination. This is not an Ingmar Bergman film. But, it is to say that there is more to this movie than just a crime story.

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