If you like crime dramas and are in the mood for a really good one that will suck you in from the very beginning and hold onto you until the final frame, you owe it to yourself to see “The Town,” a superbly acted film directed by Academy Award winner Ben Affleck, who also has the starring role. In fact this movie is so good that it is generating lots of best-picture buzz.
“The Town” is based upon the novel titled “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan, and the title refers to the Charlestown, Mass., which is a neighborhood in Boston measuring one square mile and which has the dubious distinction of being known as the Bank Robbery Capital of America. Charlestown has spawned more bank and armored-car robbers than anywhere else in the world, and the film recounts the story of four guys who live there and make their living by pulling off big bank heists.
The head of the gang is Doug MacRay (Affleck), who grew up in Charlestown and whose father (Chris Cooper), a legendary thief from the neighborhood, is serving time in prison. As the film opens, we see Doug and his gang in ction as they storm into a bank wearing unique disguises and proceed to relieve the bank of its money. Doug’s main partner in crime is James “Jem”Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), and during the robbery he takes bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage and forces her to open the vault.
After the robbery, the gang releases Claire, but Jem is very uneasy about what she may or may not have seen. He learns that she lives only blocks from where he and Doug reside, and he decides to begin following her to find out just how much she knows. However, Doug tells Jem to leave her alone and that he will take care of Claire. He subsequently follows her to a Laundromat where he strikes up a conversation with her.
Now it doesn’t take someone with the IQ of Einstein to figure out that Doug and Claire really connect and begin to fall for each other. Of course Claire has no idea who Doug really is, and he must be very careful not to reveal his true identity. This becomes particularly difficult for him when Jem finds out that he has been seeing Claire and is intent on protecting her even though he knows she has been in contact with FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm).
As Doug’s relationship with Claire develops, he begins seriously considering leaving Charlestown and a life of crime, but nasty criminal kingpin Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) wants him to do one last heist that will net him millions. Now Doug is torn between leaving town with Claire or attempting a robbery that could set him up for life.
What makes “The Town” so special is that unlike many films in the crime genre, it is much more complex because of its multiple levels. In addition to serving up plenty of action, it’s a fascinating character study underscored by a number of intricate relationships. In the film’s production notes, producer Basil Iwanyk explained how the story is multilayered.
“The story has so many layers. It has the relationship between these lifelong friends from Charlestown, who are inherently doing the wrong thing, yet you care about them. The men have a swagger and an energy that I was drawn to, but there is also an unlikely romance that immediately pulled me in.”
And screenwriter Peter Craig explained in the production notes how intriguing he found the different relationships in the story.
“Every single relationship is complex. There is a love story at its core, but Doug also has connections to Jem, to his father, to Jem’s sister, and to the rest of his crew, that are all just as integral to the story. The goal in adapting the book was to maintain the history and the depth of those relationships.”
Doug is an extremely complicated character because he actually had the chance to make something of his life, and he blew it. He was an accomplished hockey player, but he got involved in drugs and threw away any chance of success he had in the sport. When we meet him in the film, he is relatively free of the drug problem, but he’s trapped as the head of a band of thieves, and his friendship with Jem makes it very difficult to give up his life of crime.
Affleck’s portrayal of Doug is superb in that he really makes us care about the character even though he is a criminal. Although we know what he has done in the past, we want him to escape from Charlestown and have a life with Claire. Our desire to see him escape from his past is reinforced during a scene when he visits his father in prison. This is a particularly poignant sequence in the film, and we definitely don’t want to see him end up like his father.
Hall and Affleck also have a terrific chemistry, and this makes the underlying love story quite moving. Claire has no idea who Doug really is, but she ends up trusting him implicitly, and this of course adds to the pressure he is feeling to escape from his roots. And Hall succeeds beautifully in consistently conveying Claire’s vulnerability in the wake of the trauma she experienced during the robbery.
The entire cast in this film is an incredibly strong one, but Hamm is outstanding as the hard-nosed FBI agent who is relentless in his pursuit of Doug’s gang. Hamm brings to his character a suave toughness, and I could very easily see him as the star of a show in which he plays a law enforcement agent.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, however, is that it was shot on location, and Charlestown actually becomes a character in the movie thanks the to stellar images of the town from Robert Elswit, the Academy Award-winning director of photography (“There Will Be Blood”). The film is so skillfully shot that you really get a feel for the place and what life there is like.
“The Town” (Let’s give it a nine.) is one of the best films of the summer, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it contend for a number Oscars. Take some time to pay it a visit. You won’t soon forget it.