Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Town

L-R: Renner, Lively, Affleck, Hamm, Hall
The Town (U.S., 2010) co-written and directed by Ben Affleck, 125 minutes
Nominated for One Oscar:
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeremy Renner)

Director/actor Ben Affleck would not be my first choice for directors to watch. I was underwhelmed by Gone Baby Gone (2007) although it appeared to have garnered a creditable critical response even if it wasn't a box office hit. Affleck always seems to elicit a sort of snickering response which I'm not sure is entirely justified. There seems to hang about him a whiff of disbelief that he and Matt Damon could have co-written Goodwill Hunting (1997) - a wonderful film that still resonates today. The pair taking their moms to the Oscars (which they won for Best Original Screenplay that year) certainly didn't help their images.

Time to let that cynicism go. The Town is a good film with solid acting, great pacing and a terrific premise. My problem with Gone Baby Gone was the convoluted plot. This film (also co-written by Affleck) suffers a bit from a surfeit of plot points but moves more smoothly and convincingly than the previous film. And if you read this blog, you know me, I do love me some bandits...

Four friends - Doug (Ben Affleck), James "Jem" (Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner), "Gloansy" (the Boston rapper Slaine) and "Dez" (Owen Burke) - born and bred in Charlestown, a down and out neighborhood in Boston, decide to rob a Cambridge bank, one of many jobs they have done together. They are, we are lead to understand, the product of generations of desperate men who have embraced bank robbery and criminality as a career in Charleston which the film claims breeds more bank robbers than any place on the earth.

Affleck captures the gritty despair of Charlestown so effectively. The neighborhood is ugly, the players are presented as dispirited, unappealing, violent "losers". The setting, the men, their homes, the places they drink, their women - everything looks ugly and depressing. One can imagine the men going to great lengths to escape this life, even resorting to theft and murder.

During the job, they abduct the bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) but subsequently release her. As Claire was blindfolded she has no knowledge of who took her hostage. Doug decides to track her movements afterward and he becomes attracted to her, initiating a relationship. He tells Claire that his mother deserted him as a child and moved to Tangerine, FL. This will be an important plot point later.

Doug has an on-again off-again relationship with Krista (played by an impressively sleazy Blake Lively of Gossip Girl fame), Jem's sister, complicating his friendship with Jem. Lively is compelling in this role - by turns manipulative, seductive, vicious, wounded - doing whatever it takes to survive. She, too, wants out of Charlestown.

A brief note about Renner who is tremendous, thoroughly believable. He seems to fully inhabit any role that he takes - so much so that it is hard to imagine him playing any other. He captures the look, the attitude, the sense of brotherhood he feels for the Doug character, the whole "honour among thieves" code.

Unbeknownst to the men, they are under surveillance by FBI agent Adam Frawley (convincingly played by Mad Men's Jon Hamm). He soon determines that they work for "Fergie" Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), a "florist" - an odd but intriguing idea - a mobster using Town Flowers, a floral shop, as a front for criminal activity. Postlethwaite, recently deceased, is always spot on as an actor.

On their next job during a robbery, the police arrive quickly and the men barely escape. They are interrogated and Frawley soon learns of Doug and Claire's relationship and confronts Claire who learns that Doug is a suspect.

Doug searches for a way out and tells Fergie he will not do the next job - a big heist at Fenway Park. To dissuade him, Fergie tells Doug that his mother committed suicide after Fergie got her addicted to drugs when Doug's father (Chris Cooper), also a career criminal, attempted to leave Fergie's employ. He threatens to hurt Claire as well so Doug reluctantly agrees to the job.

At Fenway, Doug and Jem, dressed as Boston police officers, make their way into Fenway Park and steal millions of dollars. They try to leave in an ambulance dressed as paramedics. Krista has snitched to Frawley, so the FBI surrounds the building. Dez, Gloansy and Jem are killed while Doug escapes in a police cruiser.

Doug immediately heads to Town Flowers, killing both Fergie and his bodyguard. He calls and asks Claire to come away with him, but can see from a strategic vantage point that the FBI are in the same room recording the call. Claire initially tells him to come to pick her up, but in the end delivers a coded message to warn him away. Doug escapes from Boston in a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority uniform.

One day Claire finds a bag buried in a community garden that she had shown to Doug. The bag contains a great deal of money, a tangerine, and a note which says, "I'll see you again, on this side or the other." Claire uses the money to renovate a local hockey rink dedicating it to Doug's mother. The last shot is of Doug, presumably, in Florida, and out of the life of crime he had pursued.

And me...I love a bittersweet ending.

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