I went into this film expecting it to blow me away. After all, Gone Baby Gone completely knocked my socks off back in 2007. It was, in fact, the movie that finally made me stop rolling my eyes at Ben Affleck after years and years (and yeeeears!) of rolling my eyes at Ben Affleck. And now he’s back to direct another film set in Boston, a town I adore and one I know he knows inside and out? Bring it on. I am IN. Between 2007 and 2010, I’m sure he’s learned a gazillion new things about filmmaking, and I was definitely eager to find out what they were.
Alas, it seems that what Affleck learned in his time away from the rear-end of a camera was that thoughtful, creative movies don’t make money; movies that blow a lot of shit up do. Another one lost to the tired traditions of Hollywood blockbusters? I won’t write him off just yet, but I will confess to being extremely disappointed.
The Town is set in Charlestown, a neighborhood of Boston. It opens by telling us Charlestown is the “bank robbery capital” of America, with the trade being somewhat of a local tradition, passed down from generation to generation.
Cut to the film’s first robbery scene, where a group of men wearing Skeletor masks burst into a local bank, waving guns around and yelling about the time — you know, just like you’ve seen bank robbers do a million times in movies and TV shows. They get one of the bank employees, a pretty young woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall, who reminds me of Molly Ringwald, for some reason) to open the safe and, at the last minute, one of the robbers grabs her and drags her out with them as a hostage. They manage to escape, keeping Claire blindfolded the whole time, and once they get away, they let her go on a local beach, telling her to walk forward, keeping her blindfold on, until her toes hit the water.
Back to safety, we learn the robbers are best friends going way back, led by Doug McCrae (Affleck), the brains of the operation, and energized by the frenetic, almost ADD-like behavior of Doug’s like-a-brotha’ friend James Coughlin (a fantastic, almost unrecognizable Jeremy Renner).
James is a bit on the loose cannon side — he’s the one who took Claire hostage on a whim, something Doug wasn’t too pleased about. He’s aggressive, impulsive, and hard to reason with. Doug, on the other hand, plans carefully, ponders heartfully, and is about to get a taste of a life he never even knew he wanted.
Worried Claire might’ve seen something she could use to identify them, Doug decides to stage what the movie biz calls a “meet cute.” He follows her around until she’s heads into a laundromat and then sort of “accidentally” introduces himself to her, asking if she has any quarters for the machines. Thoroughly charmed by him, Claire ends up agreeing to go out with him for coffee. Before he knows it, Doug’s in love, getting his first real bite of what “normal” life is like, and greatly wanting more.
And here’s where the movie goes from good to glarrrrbbbbghargh! (<– industry term).
This film had so many great things going for it: an incredible cast, a setting with loads of personality all its own, a strong story backbone, and characters that were truly intriguing: Doug, the conflicted smart guy with the troubled past; Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), who is in prison for robbery himself and clearly has a complicated relationship with his son; Doug’s friend James, trouble heading for disaster; and Claire, who’s about to find out her boyfriend is the same guy who put a bag over her head and stuffed her into a van.
At first, it looked like all these elements were going to come together absolutely brilliantly into a movie that looked closely at intricately built relationships, weighty family histories, and the pressures of background and tradition. But all of a sudden, the movie inexplicably dropped most of these more interesting elements and devolved into standard bank robber stuff, turning away from the more “thoughty” parts of the story and instead diving head-first into a series of shoot-outs, car chases, the works.
We never even see Doug’s father again — that entire scene felt like a throwaway to me — and other things that seemed to be major plot elements didn’t make much sense either (like James’s tattoo — he’s so careful before a robbery he scrubs his skin down to remove any old cells that might leave behind DNA, but neither he nor Doug think to cover up his extremely unique neck tattoo? Baloney.). Frankly, even the relationship drama between Claire and Doug ends up taking a pretty boringly all-too-familiar route. Absolutely everything about the story ends up being completely predictable, with nary an original bone to be had. Major disappointment.
That said, The Town is extremely well-crafted and it’s certainly beautifully shot. The scenes of Boston are absolutely wonderful (especially the scenes set in Fenway Park — man, that must’ve been a dream come true for Affleck).
All in all, though, this movie felt more like a made-for-TV flick than a feature film made by a man we all know can do better.
Time to get some courage, Mr. Affleck, sir. Balls to the wall on the next one, you got me, ya chowdahead? You can do it. And I can wait.