By Amy Nicholson
Whether a parent is a doctor, lawyer or tow-truck driver, joining the family business is an American tradition.
For dozens—perhaps hundreds—of men in the rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, however, the family business happens to be robbing banks. In fact, the FBI believes the one-square-mile Charlestown has produced more bank robbers than any other place in the nation. One such crook in the new film The Town is Doug MacRay, played by Ben Affleck, who leads a gang of thieves even as his nagging conscience makes him want to walk away from the thug life. Unfortunately, though, it’s the only life he knows, since his father (played by Chris Cooper in a harrowing one-scene cameo) is rotting in prison on five life sentences for crossing the line by killing a guard during one of his own robberies.
Seeing his father waste away in prison and watching his best friend Jem (Jeremy Renner) walk ever closer to the edge of killing innocent people, Doug is working up the nerve to get out once and for all when Jem takes a young bank executive named Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage amid the film’s opening heist. The gang later learns she lives smack in the middle of their neighborhood and fears that she might recognize them, so Doug volunteers to test a meeting with her and see if their masks were effective.
Seeing her shaken by the aftereffects of the robbery, and realizing she doesn’t know he was involved, Doug soon falls for her. Dreaming of finally having someone to run away with, Doug is ready to make his stand—until twist after twist unravel his best intentions.
Coming within a month of the wildly entertaining Takers and the brutally realistic French double-feature gangster epic Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, it’s easy to think that The Town is just another product of the Hollywood assembly line. Yet as good as the other three heist films are, The Town has far greater ambitions and, with Affleck at the helm as director and co-writer, it achieves every one of them.
The key to its superiority lies in its heart. Where Takers occasionally has a glimpse of the deeper emotions roiling beneath the surface of its thieves, most of the film consists of slickly executed plotting and a vibrant surface sheen. Mesrine (playing in art houses) is basically a French Scarface, piling on one extravagantly brutal sequence after another without taking a breath.
Affleck, meanwhile, has imbued The Town with a palpable sense of sadness. Everyone involved wants to better their lives, but they do not know how to do it right. But even as Doug finds himself acting utterly ruthless at times, the dark family secrets that drive him—cliché, perhaps, but Affleck and co-writers Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig make them powerfully real—come spilling out to his newfound soulmate, making viewers root for him to find a way out.
Every aspect of The Town is well thought out, starting with the intricate comparisons of how the robbers plan their attacks and how FBI agents counteract them. Add searing performances from a stellar cast, gritty cinematography by Oscar-winner Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and an eclectic score by Harry Gregson-Williams and David Buckley that combines traditional Irish melodies with pulse-pounding rock, and the result is a film that shakes viewers to the core.
This is Affleck’s second writer-director effort (the other was 2007’s Gone Baby Gone) since he realized that he had to find a way out of the crushing pressures of his early fame. He knew he had to retrench to his Oscar-winning skills as a writer to reclaim respect after a string of critical and box-office duds. It is that drive that clearly connects him to the passionate heart of Doug MacRay.