Ben Affleck has a good brain for filmmaking he's clearly a smart and avid student of the medium but the elements that make his second outing as a director, The Town, such an enjoyable and exciting movie have more to do with what's in his heart. There is his love for his hometown of Boston, where the story is set, shot here with an insider's appreciation for its past both noble and ignoble. Then there is his love for his first profession, acting: it's rare to see an ensemble movie like this, so loaded with talented actors, in which virtually all of them get an opportunity to make an impression. Affleck is the boss and the star, but he knows how to share.
He plays bank robber Doug MacRay, a native of Charlestown, the Irish-influenced, working class neighborhood just to the north of Boston proper which, the movie tells us, has the dubious distinction of producing more bank robbers per capita than anywhere else in the city. Doug has gone into the family business; his dad (Chris Cooper) is in prison for killing two men during a robbery. His mother vanished when he was six. He is a type, the star athlete who was going to get out of the 'hood, and trouble, by playing professional sports (hockey in this case) but who ends up blowing his chance and back where he started. After battles with Oxycontin and booze, Doug has cleaned up chemically (there's a great sea of ravaged Boston-Irish faces at his AA meeting) but not professionally.
The most notable member of his team is Jim (Jeremy Renner). Jim also goes by Jem, a nickname he earned in grade school for being "a real gem" sarcasm intended. It's fair to say he's a real gem when it comes to bank robberies. He's as cocky as Renner's ace bomb defuser in the The Hurt Locker was, but otherwise the exact opposite trigger happy, violent and careless. It's Jem's wicked smaht idea to take a hostage bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) letting her go afterward with the caution that he'll find her, rape her and kill her if she helps the FBI. Locally, that's Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) and Dino (Titus Welliver, also known as Lost's Man in Black).
When it turns out Claire also lives in Charlestown, sadistic Jem drools at the prospect of keeping her on edge, but Doug intervenes. In the name of seeing what she knows, he befriends Claire in a laundromat. Claire is another stereotype the vulnerable do-gooder who works in the community garden and volunteers with the neighborhood children and in the hands of a more conventional actress, she would have been a drip. Hall is luminous, with Snow White coloring, but she's also one of those very special oddball types for whom freckles, a gummy smile and a coltish physical awkwardness are assets. You have to keep checking back on her to see why she's so attractive. Doug does the same. We watch as his eyes scan her for any signs she recognizes him from the bank robbery, and get distracted by the pleasure of looking at her.
Their courtship is filled with delicious moments for us as an audience-in-the-know. "What's the worst that could happen?" Doug says when he asks her out. Claire quickly confides in her new beau about being held hostage: "I'm sure I'd recognize their voices if I heard them again," she says, with confidence, getting a laugh. Affleck's direction and the screenplay (Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard all get credits for the adaptation of Chuck Hogan's book Prince of Thieves) never over-sentimentalize this attraction. It's vivid, and we like it, but there's too much obvious reality, violence and grittiness going on in other parts of the story for us to start mooning over the idea of the two of them riding off into the sunset together. The Catch-22 of their romance for Doug, whether to tell or not tell Claire the truth feels like an actual dilemma, not a gimmick.
For the most part, Affleck the director succeeds in holding a lot of threads together, and manages to keep us in our seats for the full 130-min running time no small feat. A couple story lines get short shrift, however, including one involving Fergie the Florist (Pete Postlethewaite), the Irish mob leader who controls Charlestown (think Jack Nicholson in The Departed) and another involving Doug's ex-girlfriend (and Jem's sister), the perennially wasted single mom Krista, played by Gossip Girl's Blake Lively. Lively isn't up to the standards of Amy Ryan's single mom in Affleck's debut, 2007's Gone Baby Gone, but she's not half bad.
Renner is convincing, even if the part is standard stuff, and in his few scenes Postlethewaite is quietly terrifying, even just slicing thorns off a rose. But it's Hamm that gets the juiciest, most nuanced supporting role. Agent Frawley is not a complete jerk, but he's willing to play dirty if he has to as he does with Krista, hoping to force her into informing on her brother's gang. Krista's daughter is named Shine (what could be sadder?) and Adam plays that card like an ace. "This could be a big moment for Shine," he says. He's contemptuous and sexy, a lot like his Mad Men character Don Draper, but there's a meanness there that feels entirely modern.
In the film's third act, where the conventions of this kind of thriller take over, some improbable twists steal some of The Town's power. (Example: would Fergie really order his boys to "take down the cathedral of Boston" i.e., rob Fenway Park with the FBI watching their every move?) But we'll forgive a lot because between the lively car chases, the moments of levity that temper the violence (nun's masks are used to fine effect) and the strong performances, including his own restrained, mature work, Affleck keeps showing us a good time. The Town is a thriller that manages to be pleasingly familiar, yet fresh. It's perverse to say this about something so bloody, but it goes down like cinematic comfort food.