Saturday, December 4, 2010

Playing Cops and Robbers: Ben Affleck's The Town

Note: This article addresses specific plot points in the film, The Town.

I first saw The Town back in April as part of an unpaid test screening and, partially out of indifference but mostly because of the vaguely threatening non-disclosure agreement I was forced to sign, didn't have much to say about it. It struck me as a facile but harmless genre film; the latest attempt from film producer/financier Graham King to reposition working class Boston as a modern day equivalent of gangland Chicago or the wild west (The Town is King's third "crime picture" in four years set in Boston following The Departed and Edge of Darkness from earlier this year). Mostly what stood out for me was how ineffective co-writer-director-star Ben Affleck was in the lead role of Doug McRay, a lovable lug of a bank robber who lives a straight and narrow existence where he's insulated (for maximum audience sympathy) from most of the dirty business that's usually associated with being a career criminal. Over the past decade, Affleck has receded from dramatic leading roles, focusing more on attention grabbing supporting performances in films like Hollywoodland and Extract and directing his younger brother Casey to some of the best reviews of his career in Gone Baby Gone. As far as I was concerned, The Town was a reminder of how little Affleck the romantic leading man was missed.

A few months go by and, frankly, I'd forgotten about the film. But when it was selected to play both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals I became both confused and a little intrigued, especially once this workmanlike procedural became a huge word of mouth hit. Having personally seen films take shape and improve during the test screening process I was curious to see how the filmmakers had worked around and repaired what I saw were some fairly glaring problems with the film.

I skipped the film's theatrical release, but with The Town due out on Blu-ray and DVD later this month (and with unemployment giving me an unwanted abundance of free time) I thought I'd take another look at the film to see whether I'd missed the boat the first time or whether this is simply the latest example of people automatically equating "dropping your r's" and colorful profanity with gritty authenticity.

By the way it's the second one.

Slightly longer than the version I originally saw--with additional scenes between Affleck and Blake Lively as Doug's would-be baby mama as well as a final shot which only further cements comparisons to The Shawshank Redemption--the finished version of The Town still suffers from the same fundamental problem at its center which is that it isn't remotely believable. I don't believe that these characters (any of them, really) exist in this world, which is problematic when the film seems to pride itself on glamorizing the violent, clan-like behavior of Irish criminals in Boston as though it were lifting the lid off of America's best kept secret. The film seems to be caught in a time warp, torn between two worlds, one of which only existed in the imagination of fiction writers forty years ago. The film depicts modern day (as in 2010) Charlestown as the bank robbery capital of the world; a place where no one bats an eye at one four-man crew knocking over a bank, an armored car and a fucking baseball stadium in the span of a few weeks, leaving a trail of burnt-out cars and bullet-punctured guards and police officers. It's merely business as usual, like the Sox bullpen blowing a late lead or Mayor Menino getting tongue-tied.

What motivates these guys to risk decades in prison and a bullet in the head? Money obviously although it's unclear to what end. The Town is built around three armed robbery sequences, which for convenient dramatic purposes take place in the first, second, and third acts. In the first of these robberies Doug and his crew successfully make off with $90,000 a man.
Essentially little boys still in their mid to late thirties, Doug and his cohorts (which includes Jeremy Renner as Gem, a variation on the wild man, "Johnny Boy" role DeNiro personified in Mean Streets) get lit up, eat fast food, go to the strip club and then return to their rundown houses and crappy jobs while dreaming of their next score. Doug, who is in recovery and therefor the only one with an eye towards a future outside "the life," begins romantically pursuing Rebecca Hall's Claire, the bank manager they took hostage who never saw the masked Doug's face during the robbery.

Despite being a violent thug, we're meant to accept that Doug is deep down a good guy because his stalking of Claire is disguised as chivalry and he makes self effacing jokes to defuse the emotional trauma he unwittingly caused her during the robbery ("I like to have a good cry at the nail salon" is just one of and by no means the worst of several groaners worked into the screenplay by Affleck and co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard). He may throw a fuck into Lively's Krista character from time to time, but his love for Claire is exactly the sort of motivation he needs to move away from a place and its people that do nothing but bring him down.

Yet time and again we see Doug being dragged back for the proverbial one last job, in large part due to a long unpaid debt owed to Gem that's teased out long past the point anyone remembers or cares why these two knuckleheads are friends. Gem, like the other two guys on the crew, is dramatically short-shifted; a simpleton mook who wants nothing more than to prevent Doug from ever abandoning him. We have no idea what he does with his money or when it will ever be enough for a guy living in the same house he grew up in without any aspirations of leaving it or his low-rent neighborhood behind. In other words, this character serves no purpose beyond making sure the Affleck character has to keep participating in violent and reckless shoot-outs and car chases and the audiences gets what it paid its $15 for.

Gem isn't the only character Doug is indebted to though. The story takes a brief detour for Doug to visit his lifer father in prison played by Chris Cooper in a one-scene cameo. Doug's followed in his old man's footsteps and Cooper's character is not only meant to serve as a cautionary tale for Doug, but also to further humanize him by alluding to the tragic circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Doug's mother when he was only six.

As an aside, I should take this opportunity to mention that the accent work in The Town is atrocious, particularly in the scene between Affleck and Cooper. This is all the more surprising as both actors are either former or current longtime Massachusetts residents and are clearly putting on hammy, affected "Southie" accents. The film should serve as a reminder to actors that not everyone who lives in Boston sounds like Diamond Joe Quimby.

But the missing mom story isn't merely to lend gravity to the Doug character, but rather to establish that behind every petty stick up man is a lip smacking, truly *evil* mastermind (in the instance, one played by Pete Postlethwaite who gets to de-thorn rose stems while projecting quiet menace) we can project our collective hatred upon. Postlethwaite's Fergie is not only indirectly responsible for Doug's mom killing herself but he threatens to kill Claire unless Doug agrees to rob Fenway Park in broad daylight. In a set piece which manages to be effective in the moment while still something of a missed opportunity, Doug and his crew get into a machine gun shootout in the bowels of an empty Fenway with Boston police officers that allows Affleck to live out every teenage boy's dream of staring in their own version of Heat.

Tasked with bringing this crew down is the bored-looking John Hamm's Agent Frawley (on paper, the film has a dream cast yet every performances, with the exception of Lively's, comes across as sleepy or apathetic) who gets to deliver "bad ass" speeches about personally hooking Doug up to a lethal injection machine for a Federal murder charge (the federal government's only executed three people in the last forty years, but nevermind). But for all his glowering and tough talk, he's as inept as a keystone kop. Constantly one step behind the meticulous Doug, we get a glimpse of this character's sharpened instincts at a crucial point late in the film: with Claire under FBI surveillance, in the hopes she'll convince Doug to come by her apartment where the Feds are waiting, Frawley literally stands behind her in front of a *giant* bay window, never considering that Doug (or for that matter anyone with working eyes) might see him from a safe distance away.

The screenplay for The Town has a lot on its mind, as it tries to reconcile generations of criminal behavior and the effect it has on young men born into it as well as dramatizing the changing face of Charlestown. The film was adapted from the novel Book of Thieves by Chuck Hogan and there's a rumored four hour cut of the film which may see the light of day eventually; it's likely either of these outlets treats these issues with more insight than the lip service they receive here. Overlong at more than two hours, the film is indifferently plotted, spinning its wheels between its crackerjack bank robberies without ever getting beneath the surface of a group of guys who turned to crime because it's all they knew. Nor does film have anything compelling to say about the emotional toll being the significant other of a bank robber can take on a person. The script is clunky and unsubtle, shoehorning plot devices and psuedo-profound lines of dialogue which grind the story to a halt for no reason other than the implicit promise that they'll be relevant later on in the film. The film especially suffers in comparison to Peter Yates' great Boston bank robber film of the early 70's, The Friends of Eddie Coyle which depicted the life of a criminal as a lonely game of musical chairs, only when the music stops you either end up dead or in jail.

No, Affleck's real agenda here seems to be in making a Michael Mann-style crime epic for the under-40 set (the earlier version of the film featured a scene where Doug zoned out in front of a television where the aforementioned Heat played, an instance of gilding the lilly that was wisely cut). But The Town lacks the breadth, style and attention to detail found within Mann's best films. Affleck the filmmaker can't bring himself to sympathize with the Frawley character to make him a worthy opponent and the relationship between Claire and Doug remains disappointing on the surface, as though being a violent criminal who kidnapped you at gunpoint is a "meet cute" that can be smoothed over by an earnest apology and a diamond necklace. For all its overtures to authenticity (which extends to casting pock-faced locals and the production reportedly embedding itself in the world of real criminals and drug addicts), the film feels like a bunch of kids playing cops and robbers.

Which brings me back to me original point: believability. Between The Town and Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has seemingly anointed himself the preeminent dramatist of white, working class South Boston. Yet there's always been something disingenuous about the routine, particularly if you recognize Affleck as a well-off middle class kid from an affluent suburb, posturing because he supposedly speaks the language. Of the two films, I actually enjoyed Gone Baby Gone as, for whatever its flaws, it captured some of the sadness and quiet desperation of being unable to escape one's situation. But Affleck strikes me as an artist desperately in search of street cred and seemingly unwilling to leave behind the safety net he created when he co-wrote Good Will Hunting back in the mid 90's. Anyone who's ever heard Affleck speak or read an interview with him, particularly about politics or filmmaking, can attest that he's an incredibly intelligent, self deprecating guy a million miles away from the sensitive lunkhead he plays here. I'm interested to see whatever he directs next but more than anything I wish he'd stop performing this Southie minstrel show of his. It's time to take his talents to one of the other 49 states.


Chris Bellamy said...

Some fair points, but Renner's character is absolutely NOTHING like Johnny Boy.

Bobby Moore said...

Nice post Dude keep it up.. Thabks for sharing with us..

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