Director Ben Affleck loves Boston, Massachusetts. This much is clear. He loves it so much in fact, that three of major film productions of his career have been set there, the first being Good Will Hunting, much later with his directorial debut Gone, Baby Gone and presently, The Town, his second feature as director. Affleck has massive affection for the city and its inhabitants. Sadly, this obvious fondness does not translate into a fully realized production. It is akin to writing a long love letter to someone and forgetting to sign your name at the bottom.
Based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, The Town follows Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) and their friends or troop of crooks, as they rob banks, donning Halloween masks, in Charlestown, a suburb of Boston. As the story begins, one of their bank robberies goes awry and results in the taking of a hostage, a bank manager named Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). The band of criminals manages to continue their robbery reign, as the FBI tries to discover their identities and MacRay develops an intimate and dangerous relationship with Claire, who is unaware of his true identity.
Most of the performances range from good to very good to just adequate. The startling standout, however, is Blake Lively as Krista Coughlin, James’ sister and MacRay’s ex-girlfriend. Until now, Lively’s film roles have been largely limited to lightweight material and her lead role on Gossip Girl. In The Town, Lively transforms herself entirely into the Krista character. There is no trace of Lively to be found on screen. All we see is a codependent, promiscuous, drug-using, disheveled young woman. The Town shows Lively has the capacity for great acting when the script and part call for it. While she may be in the company of several acting veterans, individuals who have been working in film for years, it is Lively’s performance that is the strongest of the cast and easily the most magnetic, which is a shame because her role is small and limits her to a handful of scenes. However, with the scenes she does have, she uses very efficiently and forcefully and leaves the audience with a lasting impression.
Rebecca Hall’s Claire and her character’s coping process is a joke and the aftereffects of her trauma seem to come and go, depending upon if the script calls for it and by the end of the film are virtually nonexistent. Her need to disclose to someone, namely the first appealing guy she runs into, her troubles, the hell she’s undergone and subsequently develop a sexual relationship after very little initiation, quickly makes her a difficult character to support, like or even understand.
Affleck knows his craft as a director. As an actor though, he still struggles to be compelling. Affleck is not a bad performer, but in many of his films he is simply not very interesting, especially when the part feels as underwritten and lackluster as this one. A truly skilled performer would be able to or might at least attempt to make the most out of an underwritten part. Affleck is not up to the task. The role of MacRay would have been much better off in another actor’s hands and considering that MacRay is the focal point of the plot, another performer in the role would have meant a better film altogether.
The film’s problem is that all of its characters are reprehensible and very unlikable people, even the supposed “good guys” like John Hamm’s role as FBI agent Adam Frawley, are repulsive. Of course, in a film of this sort, the characters are not supposed to have redeemable qualities. They are despicable and they make no qualms about it. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Scarface, films of the same genre, were driven by their own testosterone-infused malice and crime, the primary difference being that those films had strong central characters who, while not particularly likable, were still magnetic and ultimately made the audience care whether they lived or died by the end of the film. The same cannot be said of the characters in The Town. Frankly, by the two-hour, I wanted most of the characters to either their maker or be thrown in prison, for being the outright, unapologetic human garbage that they were.
The Town is good, not great. Affleck clearly knows how to weave a decent narrative, but it is the uneven script and the occasionally absurd plot turns that prevent The Town from fulfilling its potential, along with a cast of characters that are frustratingly underdeveloped and severely unpleasant. The Town ultimately is more like the imitation of a crime-drama rather than an actual crime-drama. When I first saw The Departed, I liked it very much. I did not, however, think it was the best representation of Scorsese’s skills as a director. It was not until I watched The Departed a second time, that I began to appreciate the film more and understood Scorsese’s intentions better. Perhaps the same will be said of The Town. At least, that is what I hope.