My kind of town
I like a good heist movie. Readers will know by now that Heat features very high up my all-time-greatest-films list, and rightly or wrongly has become something of a benchmark for films of the genre. The bank robbery scene and ensuing escape across central city LA are superb, and Michael Mann oft-applauded for his accomplishment. As it happens, Ben Affleck’s directorial follow-up to the terrific Gone Baby Gone (which set his brother Casey up as an extremely fine acting talent to watch – don’t get me started swooning over the exquisite The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…) evokes plenty of Heat, as well as elements of Inside Man, and even Enemy of the State. Given Spike Lee and Tony Scott brought us the latter films, Affleck can consider himself in good company.
Afflect casts himself as the protagonist, Doug MacRay, son of an imprisoned bank robber (a brief piece of Chris Cooper) who is carrying on the family business. Along with his best friend Jimmy (a hardened Jeremy Renner, plausibly sociopathic and alarmingly unpredictable) and a couple of other mates, they subscribe to the tradition that has rendered their native Charlestown the real-life bank robbery capital of America. With that kind of expectation, what other lifestyle choice is a guy to make?
As in so many bad-guy movies, Doug meets a nice girl and wants out. One last job, then a flight to Florida and (presumably) a crime-free, guilt-free life sipping cocktails with little umbrellas. How often have we heard criminals talk wistfully of this very thing? Robert De Niro tried to hang up his SIG P220 in Heat, and again in The Score, and we know it usually ends in tears.
Doug’s girl in this instance is the bank manager of their first job, still suffering from PTSD when he “meets” her in the laundromat and persuades her to go out for a drink. This is where the film suffers a little in its unrealism – Doug’s charisma must be potent off screen, because Rebecca Hall’s Claire opens up to this stranger immediately, convenient since he initially just wants to know what she’s told the police, but soon he’s sharing deep, painful childhood memories with her and, uh oh, falling in love with her for real. (Again, this is similar to Neil McCauley meeting the lonely Edie in Heat, and needless to say there are echoes of the trajectory of their doomed romance.) Add to this Doug’s inability to simply say “I quit”, and you have a genuinely frightening dilemma at the heart of the second act.
The Town has strengths in many areas: cinematically and directorially it is a fine piece of work, with some exciting camera moves (a particular favourite being to circle the actors in the middle of the street as they have some sort of revelation) and uniformly good performances. Blake Lively (from TV’s “Gossip Girl”) does a good job of playing the skanky ho (if you’ll forgive the parlance), which admittedly is probably an easier role to inject life into than staid bank manager, Claire. Jon Hamm, everybody’s favourite Mad Man, plays the hunter FBI agent without a hint of parody, and Pete Postlethwaite clearly relishes his role as the head-honcho Irish criminal who sends the boys out on their jobs.
One could criticise the slightly predictable plot and dialogue, but there are clever moments and the various heist scenes are gripping and well-executed. I do feel that if Doug and the boys had watched Heat as many times as I have, they might have avoided some fundamental errors (Plan your escape route! Don’t rob a bank in a tiny, narrow backstreet that it’ll be hard to drive away from!) – but mostly they did an excellent job. And despite the disclaimer at the end of the credits assuring the audience that Charlestown is actually full of decent, law-abiding citizens, the film still makes Boston my kind of town.