And The Town takes us inside a crew, led by Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), a former professional hockey draft pick who missed his opportunity to escape from Charlestown and accepted his place in the family trade. His father Stephen (Chris Cooper) resides upstate in a maximum-security facility serving several life-terms for murder and robbery. His hot-headed best friend James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) charges through their planned heists like a hollow-point bullethead, ready to explode and leave shards in friend and foe alike.
On the job that kicks off these proceedings, Coughlin beats a bank worker so badly that he grabs another bank employee (Rebecca Hall) in the hopes of providing additional cover, another lead that the cops will have to waste time exploring while the boys roam scott free. It turns out that the hostage lives in the neighborhood, and they have to keep tabs on her to make sure she doesn’t need to be silenced.
Doug takes on the assignment to follow her and quickly falls for her. It's a pure movie contrivance, but the way it plays out is anything but routine thanks to a thoroughly lived-in performance from Affleck that ups the stakes both for the film and his career as an actor-director. As he chats with Hall’s Claire, he lets us see, in a series of fleeting expressions, the quicksilver shifts in his assessment of her. He goes from preparing to kill her to deep longing in mere moments, and we understand that in her he discovers a second opportunity to get out of this life.
And that's focus of The Town.
The strongest referential nod that resonates here is to Michael Mann’s Heat, which gave us a smartly dedicated underworld careerist (Robert De Niro) locked in a battle of wits against his twin (Al Pacino) on the side of law and order. Heat was all about the things that men must to do prove themselves, to assert their philosophical codes, to be top dogs.
Of course, sticking close to its Charlestown roots, The Town scales back all of that thematic existential angst. It's Heat with a blue collar and swirling Nor’eastern accents.
Yet, like Heat, Affleck shows us the ties that bind and threaten to strangle Doug. The looming legacy of his father in lockdown with no hope for a life outside. The realization of what happened to his absent mother and how his relationship with Coughlin’s younger sister Krista (Blake Lively) could lead to another generation of lost souls. The puppetmastering of Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), who fronts both money and inside information on the jobs and takes his cut once the work is done.
On the flip side, though, the film wisely backs off on the law-and-order parallels. It would have been too simplistic to pit Doug against Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), the FBI agent on his trail, too on-the-nose to have Frawley and Doug vie for Claire’s affections.
Instead we see only the professional side of Frawley, but he proves to be just as ruthless and driven as Doug (and ultimately equally as human). Hamm is a supporting character all the way here, but his performance illustrates just how important and impactful such support can be to a narrative.
There’s not a weak performance in the lot, which isn't exactly surprising considering the collection of talent. Still it should be noted that Lively, known for her girlish good looks, announces loudly and proudly that she deserves a second look based on her raw completely unexpected Amy Ryan-esque turn. This young baby ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, so watch out.
The same could be said of Affleck. Gone Baby Gone was a breakout job for a guy everyone knew was smart and good looking but who had left many wondering if he'd ever be able to catch up with his good buddy Matt Damon.
Gone’s final moments blew an emotional hole through the Dennis Lehane novel, but with The Town Affleck lets us know that he’s a truly multi-dimensional threat. Co-writing, acting, directing. Is there any job in The Town that he can’t do, and do well? I don’t think so. Grade: A-
Opens Sept. 17. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.