You might think you have this one figured out – another caper flick, good guys and bad guys chasing one another from one crime spree to another toward an inevitable collision, only that isn’t this story. Sure, there are some familiar police type drama trappings, the headstrong detective countered by the equally adept master thief, the love interests that are more like collateral damage than victims and girlfriends, but in this story the cops figure out who the criminals are at the forty minute mark and what ensues is more about character than the usual ramshackle gun battles and police sieges we’ve all seen too much of already. Initially I was put off by the use of masks, again, as the ploy is too familiar and tired, but there is more to the masks this time than simple obstructions of identity. In Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 film Point Break, the villains toyed with masks of former presidents with a wink and a smile; in Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat they wore hockey masks, presumably because they looked cool. The masks in this film seem more an extension of the characters often revealing too much and have an uncanny way of conveying emotion and identity – the very things they are intended to obscure. There is a scene in the movie when the bad guys, wearing nun masks, come upon a cop and for an instant we think there is going to be a gun battle but time slows way down and two brief looks are exchange – one from the nun with the sad eyes, head cocked to one side, eye about to tear up, and then the cop who blinks and turns away as if to say, I haven’t even had my coffee yet. This is specificity. This is a director with ideas and intentions, a director who seems to be stretching his legs, offering us a peek at films to come; this is Affleck’s second film in the director’s chair.
Affleck handles this film with poise, much as he did with his critically praised but disappointing box office directorial debut Gone Baby Gone in 2007. I’m sure I’m not the first person to cite the title as problematic. Audiences need good titles or at least titles that are blunt and to the point. Gone Baby Gone sounds like a rip off of the Fast and the Furious franchise or worse, a remake of a good film from the 1970’s. The Town, on the other hand, could have been named for the actual Boston city or anywhere USA. This is a movie that is in no hurry to resort to gun play for action, relying instead on careful pacing to give characters depth and complexity that will serve them well through the rest of the story. You see, there are plenty of action and thrills in this movie but it is clear Affleck is an actors director, relying on his ensemble cast of cops and robbers to engage us and invite us into their world that is both familiar and skewed at the same time. By the time we ask ourselves the question it’s too late, we’re in the midst of the lives of these characters. You won’t find the same gun play intensity ala Michael Mann or even the slow, steady burn of 1984’s The Pope of Greenwich Village; the latter a brilliant film, by the way. Instead, from the onset, we’re told where we are and why we are there and the rest is two hours of intense, calculated action that never lets up not even when we want it to for a quick breath or moment to consider the shrapnel that cuts through flesh, bone, and future with equal velocity.
While Affleck stars, directs, and co-writes, he is clearly the linchpin for an ensemble that relies on him both as the lead character and foundation of the story, but also as the director. It challenging to separate Jon Hamm (Madmen) from the television series that made him a star, but he is convincing enough as the lead detective out to capture the bad guys. There is no denying that Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, like you didn’t know) confidently crowds the screen with everyone else as a convincing bad ass townie and the loose cannon of the group, a crook that was born and raised a crook and has no plans of returning to prison. Rebecca Hall (Please Give, Frost Nixon) is delicate and inviting, like a child who has fallen and scratched her knee and needs someone to clean her up and give her a Band-Aid. According to the DVD extras, she delivered such a convincing Boston accent Affleck though she had been born there when in fact she hails from California. Blake Lively (Gossip Girls, television series) is a shambles, both convincingly drug addled and jealous girlfriend with not the slightest suggestion of motherhood in her glassy eyes as she seems to smear the screen with equal parts maschera, lip gloss and tears; there is former glory burned into her that refuses to let go. Chris Cooper has only a minor role in this film but in his gruff, charismatic way, he delivers every line with weight and circumstance. He invests in every second, every utterance however small. Pete Postlethewaite (Usual Suspects) delivers as a quirky Irishman called the “florist”, always adding something unexpected in his portrayals, a glimmer from someplace else giving his roles weight often beyond the place in the story. Sadly, Mr. Postlethewaite died on January 3rd, 2011 after a length bout with cancer. He was a consummate professional and his talents will be surely missed.
Affleck is sure and confident, his direction is precise and specific as he alternates between roles in front of the camera and behind it, a challenge few have mastered and clearly suits Affleck’s abilities as pointed out by cast and crew members on the extended scenes and commentary provided on the DVD. He carries himself with the same kind of confidence Clint Eastwood commands on his sets where he is both in charge and on-screen. I like Affleck in this movie for his risk taking, for his genuine attention to detail and desire to carve out something new and interesting into every character. Even the girlfriend gone bad character is fully realized, the loose cannon and hard nose cop – all stand out and make Affleck’s portrayal of working class Boston that much more authentic, palpable, and memorable. He guides and nudges, he asks and very often receives the kind of fine-tuned character that seems effortless but is clearly not. Affleck will most likely miss the well deserved acknowledgment he deserves for this film, his careful and calculated use of “real” characters from the streets of the story as much as populating the upfront roles with charismatic faces who are capable as they are nice to look at. Affleck has an affection for actors who are well-defined by the camera and his attention shows here, from the casual bystander to the beat cop who would rather be anywhere with a cup of java than talking to another street-walker about a crime no one is going to solve any time soon.
The challenge for a movie like this is separating it from films of recent memory, films that have garnered top awards or collected big numbers at the box office – like Eastwood’s Mystic River or even Affleck’s debut Gone Baby Gone – the formulae is intact, the structure perfect and without protest but is this enough to sustain the entirety of a film about bad guys doing bad things who end up paying the ultimate price for their indiscretions? Affleck makes this story his own and relies on the audience, as any good film does, to dismiss stock or otherwise familiar and take notice of the purposeful minutiae and the microscopic details. There are no new stories only new story tellers. This is a story about Charlestown as much as it about people, the precursory warning at the beginning of the movie that Charlestown is the source for more armed robberies than any other town tells us as much. There is a code embedded in the very fabric of this area, the people, the criminals and the law enforcement, a code that digs deep and demands a high price from every inhabitant, young or old. It feels like an investment living in Charlestown, an investment that wears heavy, where robbers and friends treat each other like family, and that some go on living while others end up dead or ought to be.