BEN AFFLECK’S second directorial stint takes him back to Boston although a different district to the Dorchester of Gone Baby Gone. He zooms into Charlestown, the bank robbery capital of the USA as the opening blurb proudly extols, not only directing but also playing heist-meister Doug MacRay. He leads a crew of Charlestown bank robbers on a series of increasingly daring robberies. During a robbery the crew briefly kidnaps bank manager Clair Keesey (Rebecca Hall). After they release her they realise she lives nearby in their neighbourhood of Charlestown, and could possibly identify them. Without revealing his bank robber credentials Doug begins a relationship with her while telling his long-term partner in crime and regular lunatic friend James ‘Jem’ Coughlin ( Jeremy Renner) that he’s just keeping an eye on her. While Doug canoodles in Charlestown loving and plotting, FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) is determined to catch the robbers even if he has to resort to good cop bad cop clichés to do so.
Affleck’s co adaption of Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves makes a welcome return to the heist films of the more recent past like Point Break and Heat, but also owes a debt to Peter Yates’ progression from Robbery to Bullit to the similarly bleak Bostonian Friends of Eddie Coyle. The Town invests in its Boston setting, and is rewarded with the natural feel of insider knowledge that expands the themes of a bleak blue collar future hinted at in Affleck’s co-written Oscar winning Good Will Hunting screenplay. It explores the disaffected blue collar malaise that has permeated the locals seemingly marooned now the once strong economy of the naval yards has made way for gentrification. It’s not so much a blue collar world but an underclass existing on a past long gone yet wallowing in a perennial St.Patrick’s Day Irishness fed by a mentality of excess alleviated by oxycontin to be washed away in the numerous bars still remaining in the area.
From a running start MacRay and his merry men ricochet around Boston taking down not only banks but also an armoured car just to add to the degree of difficulty as they drift further along the line to the ultimate Boston heist: Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. And once at Boston’s citadel of baseball, the fluidity of pace and action leaves the possibility of a home run or a potential third strike open. If only all this organisation weren’t enough for Doug he becomes increasingly involved with former hostage Claire (a step up in more ways than one for Sir Peter’s daughter in the lover stakes since last spring’s Please Give) who has a past all of her own that all makes for some tender, soul searching ‘will she won’t’ she moments in the third act in the best traditions of Heat.
a Boston that’s a million miles from the Harvard glee club
Affleck’s direction comfortably facilitates the characters the luxury of organic development between robberies as their flaws and idiosyncrasies propel them, with the odd exception convincingly, through a Boston that’s a million miles from the Harvard glee club or Chomsky’s MIT lectures. This Boston isn’t blue blood or old money but is powered by old fashioned loyalties, the debts to your friends and your family, the inevitability of stepping up and taking the fall for someone you’ve known since before grade school.
The Town is firmly anchored in the gangster films of the past, which makes it strangely prescient in today’s financial and morally bankrupt overly leveraged world. It’s a film about the small guy taking back his own future and fucking corporate America as in the days of dustbowl depression America where the disenfranchised workers, and foreclosed farmers took up bank robbery and bootlegging as the returning WW1 vet, Eddie Bartlett did in The Roaring Twenties. It’s as much a return to the wheelbarrows loaded with money trolling through the Weimar republic as the gangster taking down an armoured car.
Of course, the stock characters are all there as are the timeless motives and tough tales that go to make up the characterization of the reliable fodder for the disaffected. Fergus, Fergie, Colm the Florist (Peter Postlethwaite,) follows on from the archetype Ikey Soloman, Pied Piper, Fagin and The Public Enemy’s London born Murray Kinnell’s Putty Nose in leading our noble hero astray, and off the screen as is the skill of a craftsman of the calibre of Postlethwaite who doesn’t waste a frame.
the solipsistic calling of a spent existence
Also making good use of every frame is imprisoned Stephen MacRay (Chris Cooper) who delivers a stoic well honed cameo as the washed up three time loser father, a haunting future that Doug could become if he follows the seemingly pre-ordained path that Charlestown relies on. It’s a grim outlook that doesn’t yield to the prodigal moment or the unity of purpose touched by Willie Nelson in Michael Mann’s Thief when James Caan visits but resonates with the solipsistic calling of a spent existence.
At times The Town can be a touch indulgent relying on anecdotes as an excuse for exposition and character development but overall it works as the story doesn’t attempt originality but relies on the solid character device of the perennial outsider of the Parish trying to get out but having his loyalties questioned. And once those loyalties are questioned it leads to a conflict that can only escalate when the motives of those you’ve known all your life are different to those you used to steal cookies with.
Doug wants out of the life, and even attends narcotics anonymous, but as is the want of those around him they see it all in a different way beyond the times that may have changed as they did for antecedents like Public Enemy’s Tom Powers (James Cagney). And just when you thought you were out…
Overall it’s a good, old fashioned heist robbery where they have to “cross the pavement” racking a shotgun, and not send an email via a friendly foreign offshore retreat.