Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Is It Worth A Trip To 'The Town'?: A Movie Review

Films about criminals are far from an original concept. Actually, ever since the 90s, movies where the 'hero' is the lawbreaker has become a very common archetype in cinema. The reality is, even though 90s films like The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dog helped make the genre accepted among modern day mainstream audiences, films like Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather or Scarface prove it has been a genre that has been a part of cinema for decades (or if I did some actual research, would probably find since almost the beginning of film). Many of them are considered all time classics and they often do quite well in the box office. I think, that is largely because the viewers watching the films are good and honest human beings, thus would never commit these acts themselves, but are still intrigued by that darker side of humanity. Hollywood has caught on to this fascination and now pumped out copious amounts of films about crimes and their perpetrators. Films about criminals are not unique, and due to the recent glut of them, there is now a need to create a few twists on this now common theme. It is no longer enough to just send the audience on a two hour bank robbery spree, because we've already been on that visceral ride thus demand more.

The Town is a film based on a novel by Chuck Hogan entitled, Prince of Thieves. It is about four friends in Charlestown, Massachusetts (near Boston) who are bank robbers, but things begin to change for one of the robbers when they take a female bank manager hostage, who is released after the job is successful. Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) starts to tail the woman to make sure she can't identify them to the cops, but this ends up resulting in both of them falling in love. If you have watched the trailers for this film, then you are probably left with the idea that is what the major plot of the film is (along with the necessary amounts of action thrown in). I am sure there is even a few who left the theatre thinking that was a major focus of the film. I do admit it was a key story element, but I actually believe it was only the catalyst that helps drive the main plot and theme of this film.

MacRay, and his crew, grew up in an environment where bank robbing was essentially the family trade. It was what they knew, and the life they believe they were destined to live. Their fathers were bank robbers, and their community was deeply entrenched into this type of culture. The boys are working for the exact same guy who set up the deals for their fathers, and they believe they have little choice than to do what he wants (especially, with a boss that doesn't accept resignations kindly). It seems like MacRay's encounter with bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) causes him to recognize there is more to life. This begins the story of a man who is torn between two worlds. The world he actually lives in with his fellow bank robbers, and the world that Claire believes he is in. The film is really about how some are pegged for a certain life due to their environment, and then how they try to escape what they believe was their destiny (and the struggles and issues that brings upon them). The life is ingrained in them, but deep down, it becomes clear they don't necessarily want it or like it. They rob banks because it is what they know, but not what they want. The most interesting part of this story is that even though MacRay is the one actively trying to leave it, it becomes clear that he isn't the only one who wants to change. The film shows this inner conflict within a few of the main characters, and then proceeds to display how each person reacts to this differently.

There is a love story, but the more intriguing and powerful relationship is the one between Doug MacRay and Jem Coughlin (Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner). The two have grown up together and are basically brothers. The film establishes very quickly that there is a deep bond between them, even though their personalities are very different. The film builds towards a deep conflict as MacRay continues to desire to leave this life, which is the only one either know, thus causes resentment from Jem. The tensions that build between the two is what helps drive the plot, but also show how juxtaposing the two characters are. Jem is a key figure because he helps bring up issues of loyalty and commitment in MacRay, especially considering all that Jem has done for him. At the same time, the relationship proves that neither necessarily want to continue this life, but it is their personalities that cause them to respond to those feelings differently. It is this relationship that helps layer the film, and really drive home the issue of how these men feel chained to this life. It reveals the sometimes misguided notion of how you much stay loyal to each other to the very end (at the expense of one's own safety and health). This deep relationship creates a non traditional version of a love triangle. Jem is a major reason that MacRay feels loyal to the life of bank robbing, and is a partly what makes MacRay stuck in this lifestyle. On the other side, it Claire that leads to the growing tensions and problems between the best friends. It is the clash of two worlds, but also the story of the struggle to try to change a life that has been so clearly defined for you. MacRay is left trying to decide what matters most to him.

Now, Ben Affleck has been a punching bag over the last several years. The comic book geeks lament that he ruined Daredevil, and believe he was the main reason for the film being unsuccessful. Of course, many still haven't forgotten Gigli, which is considered one of the worst films ever (where he won the Razzie for Worst Actor in 2003). In The Town, Ben Affleck is able to demonstrate that he does have real talent. He not only stars in the movie but is also the director and co-writer (of the screenplay adaption). As for his acting, Affleck does an admirable job of maintaining the Boston accent throughout the film. He crafted a role where his character was expected to be fairly understated for the most part. Affleck rarely needed to play scenes that expressed a wide variety of emotions, but rather the role of a person who is keeping his emotiond inside and trying to keep secrets hidden. It is clear that such a role played to Affleck's strengths, where his actions were more subtle and calm.

It is Jeremy Renner who really shines in his performance as Jem. He is playing a complete nutcase who will fly off the hinges at a moments notice. The intensity and emotion of Jem is very believable, which is something that can risk becoming a borderline parody. Renner is able to play a hot head, but still one that the audience can connect with at some level. The true strength of Renner's acting skills are displayed in a scene at the diner between Affleck, Renner and Hall. Renner does a fabulous job of a playing a character who is absolutely furious but trying to pretend he is happy but struggling to hide his emotions. There is a lot of depth needed in pulling off such actions, as the audience needs to know Jem isn't being sincere but still believe he is hiding who he is to Claire. Renner does a fantastic job on making the scene come off believable, and conveying the proper emotions and feelings needed. It is a stand out performance, and one that really helps push the believability of the story being told.

Affleck does an admirable job directing his second full length theatre release. The film has the right amount of pacing as it provides the necessary scenes to show the inner and outer conflict MacRay has, but also fills the film with the expected actions in a crime film. The story unfolds in such a way where the viewer is attached to the main characters, and is thrilled by the exciting robbery scenes, but at the same time, is not left with the feeling that bank robbery is a glorious thing. The film displays the act in such a way that you know it is horrible, and the main characters know it is horrible too. It isn't what they want to do, but what they feel they have to do. This allows for the proper amount of sympathy towards the characters, but also there is scenes that remind you they aren't necessarily good guys either. It is yet another film that creates an anti-hero and shows a world that is much darker than any of us will ever see.

The Town
is a film that has themes and stories that have been done before and sometimes even done better. It is also still a very deeply layered film that also provides the necessary visceral emotions demanded by such a movie. It's action and excitement that also contains a deeper story. A story that reveals a certain type of life and struggle. It is the film that make the robber the protagonist, but also avoids glorifying that life. It allows the viewer to feel some sympathy towards criminals, by making you wonder if they really have a choice for this life. It also creates characters like FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm)who reminds us that these are bad people doing really nasty things that must be stopped. At times we are mad at Frawley for not understanding that the protagonist has little choice in what he does, but then Frawley also shows us, these are still men who are harming innocent people. He helps add the struggle that is created with the two opposing worlds.

This is a film that is exciting and thrilling, but also be deep enough to make you think. There are many elements worth discussing after the movie. It is a film that has taken a now overused genre, but added some fresh spins on it. The Town is a very welcome addition the crime genre and a movie that proves that Affleck is a deserving talent as an actor and especially director.

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