‘The Town’: Affleck proves himself as director

Nate Lessler

There wasn’t a moment in “The Town” when I was not completely enthralled. That’s not to say that the film is perfect. In fact, it’s far from it. But it is a riveting crime drama, full of compelling characters and interesting themes.

Set in Charlestown, MA, “The Town” opens with four long-time friends robbing a bank. The leader of this crew is Doug MacRay  (played by Ben Affleck, who also directed the film). After the robbery, MacRay falls in love with the bank manager named Claire that the crew held hostage during the heist (Rebecca Hall), and starts looking to escape the life of crime he was born into. Problem is, his longtime friend and partner Jem (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner), won’t let him. Meanwhile, the FBI desperately attempts to track MacRay down for his countless crimes.

But “The Town” isn’t about bank robberies- it’s a story about social class, trying to escape the mistakes of ones past, and a culture of crime that is passed down from generation to generation.  Subtlety is not “The Town’s” expertise; the themes are made very obvious to the audience. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it leads to a number of powerful and very well-executed moments throughout the film.

Take for example a moment which occurs right before the team carries out their second bank robbery. The team, all disguised with nun masks, drives a van down the bank they intend to rob.  Then for a split second MacRay, sitting in the back seat of the van with an automatic rifle in his hand, makes eye contact with a kid standing on the sidewalk wearing a backpack – a kid who will likely end up living a life similar to MacRay is in less than twenty years.

Affleck’s follow up to his strong directoral debut (Gone Baby Gone) ultimately proves that his true talent lies in directing – not acting.  That’s not to say that Affleck’s performance is bad, he is just unable to be on par with the many outstanding performances provided by the ensemble cast.

The strongest performance in the film comes from Renner who plays Jem, MacRay’s violent friend who has come to accept the life of crime he leads.  However, the most surprising performance in the film is that of Blake Lively (Gossip Girl), who demonstrates that her acting abilities go far beyond the weak characters she has been limited to on film and TV so far in her career. Lively plays a character by the name of Krista, Jem’s sister and MacRay’s ex-girlfriend with a drug addiction as well as a very young child. While Lively’s screen-time is very limited, her strong performance driven by her unrequited love for MacRay is one of the driving forces in the film.

While there are occasional action scenes, “The Town,” like most Boston crime dramas, does not rely on action sequences to carry the story. When the action scenes do arrive, however, they hit fast and hard and are excellently executed. The outstanding acting by the film’s well-assembled ensemble makes the action sequences even more thrilling because the audience actually cares about the fate of the characters.

However, the film is not without flaws. A few characters such as Claire and and FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm of “Mad Men”) are extremely underdeveloped – they never surprise the audience nor do they make any interesting choices that reveal character. Rather, they just play along with what the plot requires them to do.  Additionally, the film at time falls into the trap of crime film cliches. But it is important to remember from time to time why these cliches exist – it’s because they work.

The screenplay (which was adapted from the novel “Prince of Theives” by Chuck Hogan) is fairly strong. But unfortunately the screenplay is also what is ultimately holding “The Town” back from being an absolutely phenomenal film. The story of “The Town” is set up in such a manner that it has the ability to be as powerful and tragically beautiful as Eastwood’s “Mystic River.” However, the screenplay unfortunately falls short and thus the film never reaches its full potential.