Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Town

Written at the time of the film's release.

"Prince of Thieves, Pillar of the Community"
"Taking Down the Cathedral of Boston"

Ben Affleck's directorial debut for Miramax, Gone Baby Gone revealed a film-maker of complexity and subtle visual skills, creating an intriguing film noir of corruption in high places for the best of intentions and the moral ambiguity of holding true to an ideology versus the considerations of pragmatism. It was an ambiguous film that resolved the mystery, but not the implications of its characters' actions, and guaranteed lively debate long after its ending.

But what was clear was Affleck's ability to find the perfect shot and staging for making his points, along with a documentarian's eye for the lived-in detail; Affleck's vision extended beyond the bubble inhabited by the culprits in the scenario, and into a real recognizable, even mundane world.
So, my anticipation for his second film, The Town, has been high.  My respect for Affleck the actor has never been high (save his subtle work as TV-Superman George Reeves in Hollywoodland), but Gone Baby Gone made you sit up and take notice of Affleck the director and writer.
I'd have been happy with more of the same, but Affleck has changed gears impressively for this crime drama about a foursome of expert knock-over artists (the FBI agent assigned to the investigation—played by Jon Hammcalls them "The Not-Fucking-Around Crew") trained from endless hours of watching the endless array of CSI shows on TV, and the second generation of Charlestown townies doing the dirty work their fathers have engineered, or are paying the price for. It looks like robbery, but it's more like literal class war-fare (with automatic weapons) between the have-nots and the "Hahvard" elite of Cambridge. Affleck stages three intricate robberies, each one different in scope and technique and each with their own visceral power that catches one off guard with some truly impressive ways of presenting them. The first, a bank robbery, starts with a black and white silent image (save for some electronic telemetry sound-design) from a security cam that explodes into color and sound when they burst through the door. The second, an armored car robbery, with an elaborate get-away through tight streets and back alleyways that is truly frightening. The third...I won't even say. But, it recalls some doom-laden Alamo-like circumstances from a lot of fine film-makers of the past, and, like the other action set-pieces, it's filmed efficiently to provide just enough information, and propel forward to the next gut-wrenching development. Howard Hawks once said of Don Siegel's hard-hitting approach to film violence "That stuff's hard to do." Affleck makes it look easy, and he avoids embraced movie-cliches nimbly; he even provides one of the most inelegant fights since the fight in the bar in The Treasure of the Sierrra Madre.
The Town has a great screenplay, too. Frustrating, deep and complicated, it also provides nice grace notes that reverberate throughout the movie, and hang in the mind on the way home.
The story begins with that first robbery. One of the managers (Rebecca Hall, who plays fragility as well as she does brittleness) is forced at gun-point to open a time-lock safe, while the crew spends as much time destroying incriminating evidence, as they doing sacking the loot. An alarm is tripped and so she is taken hostage by the gang led by Jeremy Rennerdoing great repugnant work—and Affleck, and released at the ocean's edge. The trigger-men soon realize that she lives in their neighborhood, and it's decided to deal with her, which to avoid Renner's John Coughlin killing her, Affleck's Doug McRay takes over, and he becomes smitten as he sees the effects the trauma has wrought on her. Unaware of his part in their crisis, they begin a tentative relationship, and soon, he's caught in the middle, trying to hide double-truths from both his girl and his gang
"I'm sorry," he says (quite honestly) as she relates her fears about the incident.  "It's not your fault," she says, automatically...and the banal nicety hangs like an indictment between the two.
Affleck is less concerned with the expressive image here, and more concerned with the impactful presence, coding his film with broad strokes that link characters with circumstances and localesIt's a broader, more tough-as-nails approach to film-making than his first film, and that extends to his portrayal of violence which is presented unflinchingly and coldly and fast. Lives end in an instant, and the deaths are unromantic and not pretty. In the meantime, the tensions of all things good and bad unravel skeins of connection, and the film ends unresolved...but not ambivalent.

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