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Town, The

dir: Ben Affleck
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This flick is still limping its way out of Australian cinemas for at least another week, and so I’m glad not only that I got to see it on the big screen, but that I have something newish to review. Because gods know the world needs more of my movie reviews. You know you crave them, too. It’s like an addiction, I know.

It’s strange that the name ‘Ben Affleck’ as director inspires much more interest in me than when ‘Ben Affleck’ the actor is referred to. One piques my interest, the other inspires my whatevers impulse. When Ben Affleck is the director and the main character, then I’m the very definition of ambivalent.

It really can’t be overstated how good a flick Gone Baby Gone was, which indicated at least that Affleck, at the time, was better placed directing flicks than being in them. Consider it his long march towards redemption for the decade or so of flailing and Jennifer Lopez tabloid hysteria. With all the critical kudos he garnered for directing his brother Casey in probably the best flick they’ll ever be involved in, he somehow decided two seemingly contradictory things: that he should direct more films, and that people were clamouring to see him in front of the camera again.

Only one part of that equation is true, but, hey, it’s his flick, so if he wants to give himself the plum role, good luck to him.

The Town refers to Charlestown, a suburb of Boston even scummier than Dorchester. How do I even know anything about a suburb of Boston? Because of Ben Affleck movies set there and other flicks based on Dennis Lehane novels like that turgid Mystic River flick.

This suburb apparently has more bank robbers than Johannesburg, and it’s considered a family trade handed down from father to son. As such, our main character, Doug MacRay, played by Affleck, is a career crim and a most excellent hand at this armed robbery game. The first eight minutes of the flick involve a bank robbery carried out with ruthless efficiency by experts. A bank employee (Rebecca Hall) is taken hostage, sees something which could identify one of the crims, and is let free. Throughout her ordeal, Doug tries to not freak her out too much. He almost seems to care about her, to want to shield her from what he himself and his cohorts are doing.

The feds, in the form of the FBI, led by my man Jon Hamm, playing some guy, are closing in on these crims, but they’re still a fair distance away from them. These crims aren’t sloppy, and except for Jem (Jeremy Renner), are fairly cool under pressure. Though they worry as to what the hostage might do or say down the track.

It’s fairly unlikely, but Doug ‘accidentally’ strikes up a relationship with her without obviously telling her that he was involved in the robbery that’s destroyed her peace of mind. At first he’s trying to make sure she doesn’t talk to Jon Hamm, because, honestly, who needs that level of competition, but eventually he starts caring about more than just her legal inclinations and her pink bits.

It’s unlikely, to me, because Doug is way too depressed and way too entangled in the thug life for the relationship to be believable. He also seems to be in recovery, and hates all the other poor stupid violent people with funny chowder accents he seems to be surrounded by.

His father (Chris Cooper) is in prison for the rest of his days, and their relationship is somewhat lacking in emotional closeness. Doug has a painful memory of his mother disappearing when he was a child, which he relates to Claire, in a depressing but strong monologue, which is one of the best scenes of the film. The reason is because Affleck correctly directs himself to underplay it, soberly, without swinging and emoting for the cheap seats.

It’s a level of restraint that serves him well for most of the flick, though he clearly can’t help himself, and gives himself a few opportunities to scream like Al Pacino after three days on a meth bender.

Not too many, though. Throughout, Doug is ambivalent about continuing to ‘work’, but not too ambivalent, because he’s so gosh darn good at what he does. For almost the first time in a flick about a career crim, he decides that he wants to leave town and not be a crim anymore. But really, what fun would that be, unless he’s forced, through whatever reason, to perform One Last Job?

I wonder how that will turn out.

I have to say that, though this flick doesn’t demonstrably do anything that I haven’t seen before in countless other flicks, I enjoyed the absolute fuck out of it. I can’t really say why. I think that the robbery scenes, involving a bank, an armoured car, and finally, the Cathedral of Boston also known as the baseball stadium Fenway Park, are so well handled, so well staged, shot and edited that had all the other elements been weaker, I still would have liked it. The fact that the other dramatic elements, and Doug’s shitty world in Charlestown, are so strong and well realised that it makes supporting everything else even easier.

But let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet. It really is not that new. And there are some parts that are too hard to swallow. My problems with Doug and Claire’s relationship (as written, not as acted, because Affleck plays it right, and despite having too many teeth, Rebecca Hall seems like she’s going to be a sublime actress in the right roles) pale almost into insignificance compared to some of the supporting characters who stink up the joint with their non-acting.

Blake Lively, I believe, is the name of an actual actor, and not the name of a stripper, or a Tonight Show, or a dessert topping. She, famous I guess for looking like a much younger Ellen Barkin, and for being in a terrible soap called Gossip Girl, gives a performance so trashy and so broad that I couldn’t stop myself from cringing whenever she appeared. Every time she spoke in a flick replete with pungent accents, it seemed to me that the coaching and dialect tutelage she received for getting that perfect “Ah pahked mah cah in Havahd yahd” accent came from the expert advice provided by the cast of Jersey Shore.

In case geography isn’t your strong suit, New Jersey and Massachusetts are far away from each other. I know her single-mother drug dealer slut character is virtually a staple for the area, if the film is to be believed, where much mentioning is made of how awful the women of the area are, but goddamn did they overdo it.

Jon Hamm, for those of you who don’t know why I keep calling him Jon Hamm, is famous for assaying a newly iconic character in the person of Don Draper, the perfect early 60s man from Mad Men. As such, Jon Hamm always looks like Jon Hamm, or Don Draper, or vice versa, or however you wish to configure it. He’s great as that character, and he might be a tremendous actor, but he is so closely associated with that one character than maybe, even from his own perspective, he has a bit of difficulty differentiating himself from what we see as his primary character.

To do so, he acts so intensely and so nastily-within-what-the-law-allows, that we’re supposed to forget all about the whisky-soaked chain-smoker and empty suit persona of earlier mention. It works, to an extent, because he tries so very hard, and is so wonderful, but he still just came across as a more animated and far more prone to police brutality version of Don Draper. His strengths and weaknesses as an actor are fully on display, and even though he’s all kinds of awesome, still, he’s trying way too hard to not be bland.

Doug’s character is the one we are supposed to get to know the most (actually, he’s probably the only one given any dimensionality), but I’m not sure if we’re supposed to come away from this believing he’s a product of his environment, a product of his bad parenting, or just a person so enmeshed in his unhealthy relationships that he can’t break free from his own life. We kind of forget that he’s a serious criminal, who may be a bit smarter and compassionate than the crims he is surrounded by, but, you know, he terrorises people with semi-automatic weapons, steals people’s money and, you know, shoots cops, guards and people that piss him off. He may be a prince amongst scumbags, but he’s still a scumbag.

It’s the measure of a successful flick that we come to care about the plight (or survival, or non-survival) of a set of characters, and I guess I ‘cared’ what happened at the end, to some extent. But I’m not sure if I really should have.

Comparisons have been made with Heat, the Michael Mann flick from the mid 90s, and I think the comparison is bogus. Every time crims are shown running with a large bag stuffed with bank bills, and engaging in pitched gun battles with cops, they’re going to bring up Heat. The stories couldn’t have been more different, even if they concerned actors playing cops and robbers. Le Circle Rouge, Rififi and Ocean’s Eleven Twelve Thirteen are all heist flicks, but three of these things are not like the other two.

I’m not saying it’s better, I’m not saying it’s worse, I’m just saying it’s different. I find Heat a chore to sit through, and I certainly can’t say that about The Town. Even with such a generic title, it’s managed to be one of the best crime flicks of the year, no doubt. Even with the absurd accents and limited characterisations, it’s tense when it needs to be, understated yet poignant in certain key bits, and downright nasty when it has to be. Even if I don’t buy Doug’s relationship with Claire, I still buy this excellent flick about that most Bostonian of pastimes, being violent robberies and the men who perpetrate them, and the women who love them. Those foolish, foolish women.

8 times I thought that a certain note left on the windshield of a certain car at the end of the flick should have read "hah dah ya lahk dem apples?" for greater Bostonian authenticity out of 10

“I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna hurt some people.”
- “Who’s car are we taking?” – The Town