Early on in The Town, Ben Affleck wears a Boston Bruins jacket. Then we see him in a Red Sox jacket. Would Celtics and Patriots jackets be too much, or is he just not a fan? Or is it because hockey and baseball actually figure in the plot, and this is his idea of foreshadowing?
But Affleck wants to make sure we remember that blue-collar Boston is his milieu. The Town, which he adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, is Affleck’s second writer-director effort, after 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, and a conscious return to home-field advantage. This time it’s Charlestown, that peninsular northern square-mile nook so solemnly remembered for strategic importance in the Revolutionary War and, more recently, for having produced more robbers of banks and armored cars than any other place in America. Armed robbery is a family trade in Charlestown, an opening title tells us, passed down from one generation to the next.
Clearly Affleck’s Doug MacRay has learned the trade from his dad, who’s now in prison (and in the flinty form of Chris Cooper). What’s less clear is how Doug learned to be so sensitive. Yes, he leads a gang of heavily armed criminals, but reluctantly. Yes, he’ll thwart and spar with a looming FBI agent (Jon Hamm), but he allows that feds are people, too, who at the end of the day, just “wanna go home and nuke their suppah.” And yes, he’ll keep an eye on that comely young bank manager (Rebecca Hall), briefly kidnapped by his team during their latest heist, but only then to trade family sob stories and fall in love with her.
People who just don’t understand: Doug’s druggie ex (Blake Lively), his loose-cannon pal (Jeremy Renner) and, occasionally, the audience. Still, when he finally announces, “I’m puttin’ this whole fuckin’ town in my reah-view,” we do get the idea. It’s a movie. Set in Boston.
While The Town lacks the magnitude it’s after, it doesn’t lack the courtesy to entertain. It’s a little bit like The Departed (without Martin Scorsese’s heavy menace), and a little bit like Heat and Public Enemies (without Michael Mann’s preening style), and a lot like half a dozen forgotten noirs from 50 years ago, although with contemporary touches like BlackBerries, forensic evidence and a guy getting shot in the crotch.
Anyway, The Town is not just a heist movie, it will have you know, but a character piece with authentic regional atmosphere. At worst that means Good Will Hunting-esque back-story blurts and superfluous swirling helicopter shots of the Bunker Hill Monument. The latter, at least, speaks to Affleck’s perhaps unacknowledged top priority here, his striving for an elegant and lasting symbol of male virility. So what if he’s in his comfort zone, as long as he’s striving?
Now, you may be wondering why, after Gone Baby Gone, Affleck didn’t again cast his brother Casey as one of the cops or crooks in The Town. Maybe it’s because the fraternity of square, stubbled jaws has some union deal with the Screen Actors Guild, and Ben and Jon Hamm (who plays a Don Draper guy in a bulletproof vest) together satisfied the requirement. Maybe it’s just that Renner excels in the most ostensibly brotherlike role, even if it involves a tendency toward sociopathy that Casey Affleck, last seen coldly bludgeoning women to death in The Killer Inside Me, very plainly understands. Or maybe it’s that Casey was busy making his directorial debut, and accordingly had a loose-cannon brother-figure performance of his own to contend with, from famed show-biz flameout and pseudo-retiree Joaquin Phoenix. In any case, the younger Affleck apparently has moved on to coldly bludgeoning audiences.
I’m Still Here, his movie is called, and that about sums it up. It’s a portrait of a self-tortured artist in the process of torturing himself, and the epitome of a publicity stunt: by celebrities, for celebrities. In lieu of probing, it perpetuates, with the question of its fakeness long ago rendered moot. And its only trace generosity is accidental: For all its monstrous cynicism, Casey’s film makes Ben’s film, with its contrived tribalism and preposterous, sentimental ending, seem somehow like a breath of fresh air.