Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Town

While Ben Affleck’s acting career has been pretty hit-or-miss both quality-wise and box office-wise, he is now two for two with great directing jobs. His Boston, here just as in Gone Baby Gone, is as textured and crime-riddled as New York was in the 70s. If it isn’t quite on the level of his directing debut, that’s only because he set the bar dauntingly high for himself.

In addition to directing and co-writing here, Affleck also stars as Doug, a professional bank robber who’s just completely beaten down by the life he’s been born and raised into. His life finally takes a turn when he meets Claire (Rebecca Hall), the manager of a bank he and his crew rob. Following her to make sure she isn’t talking to the police, they accidentally start talking and soon move on to dating. Through her, he sees the chance of a life that’s better than the one he has, and begins to fool himself into thinking he can escape from his old life. Unfortunately, his old ties, particularly his boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite) and his best friend Jem (Jeremy Renner) are determined to do everything in their power to keep him right where he belongs.

So I’m making the film sound like more of a character study now than a crime movie, and while that’s certainly true, that’s certainly not intended to ignore the action scenes and ever-mounting tension to be found in the film. There are three major action scenes spread throughout the film: the opening bank robbery, a car chase with the police about halfway through the film, and a massive shoot-out with the Boston PD and the FBI at the climax, all of which work extremely well. The car chase in particular is quite possibly the best I’ve seen in a film in the last ten years, and I think part of the reason it works so well comes from how emotionally invested we’ve gotten in the story and its characters. Compare this to, say, the part in G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra when the Joes are chasing after Cobra agents through Paris and trying to recover a dangerous warhead from them. Guns are firing, cars are being destroyed, there’s explosions and chaos everywhere, and it’s completely impossible to give a damn about any of it because all the characters are such bland ciphers that nobody on the entire planet could have any emotional stake in the outcome.

The tension in the film also builds itself up at a perfect, steady pace. The film rarely feels the modern need to scream at the audience that they should be nervous, but like a classic noir we can still feel, as the movie progresses, the slow and inevitable feeling that doom is hovering over all of the characters, merely biding its time before it descends upon all of them. Consider one masterfully done scene partway through. Doug and Claire are eating lunch at a sidewalk café, when Jem shows up and introduces himself to Claire. Doug knows that Jem has a tattoo on the back of his neck that Claire can’t be allowed to see or she‘ll know that he was part of the crew that robbed her bank, and tries to silently signal to Jem that he needs to leave immediately. Jem is unaware that his tattoo would be a giveaway, though, and decides to ignore Doug’s signaling, staying around to torment Doug and express his great displeasure at Doug dating a witness that could potentially get them all thrown back in jail, all while seeming polite and cheerful to Claire. You almost want to start screaming when you watch the scene unfold, because Jem is such a loose cannon throughout the film that we have no idea from moment to moment what he’s capable of doing next. We get the feeling that, should she discover the tattoo and start freaking out, he might just pull out a gun right then and there and shoot her publicly, worrying about the consequences later. Indeed, between this film and The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner is really showing a virtually limitless range as an actor. He so fully embodies his role here that we start to wish the film had been about him instead. Where Affleck’s character is mostly dead inside, Renner is so full of life that he almost jumps out of the screen, leaving chaos wherever he goes.

I’m really liking the recent resurgence in quality crime movies. With this, Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, and others, we’re very slowly starting to get some films that properly evoke the great noirs of the 40s and 50s, crime stories that you can really get down and dirty with, and I for one could not be happier. This may be a bit slow-paced for the ADD generation, but for those who like an absorbing film that actually takes the time to say something, you can’t go wrong here.

Rating: *** ½

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