17 September 2010

The Town

Rebecca Hall, left, and Ben Affleck are shown in a scene from, "The Town."
"The Town" is a film full of heists, shootouts and powerful emotional moments. But one quiet scene pulsates with more tension than any other.

Bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebbeca Hall), recently taken hostage during a bank robbery, unknowingly finds herself sharing a table at an outdoor cafe with two of the crooks. One, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck, who also directed and co-wrote with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, based on a novel by Chuck Hogan), the brains behind the operation, is her new suitor. He's wormed his way into her life to find out what she knows after learning she lives just a couple blocks away in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. The other, Jem (Jeremy Renner), bears the only identifying mark Claire has on them—the tattoo on the back of his neck. Doug knows this, though Jem does not and Claire has no reason for suspicion.

It's a perfect scene of Hitchcockian suspense in a film that, on the whole, has more in common with "Heat" and Affleck's first directorial effort, the superb "Gone Baby Gone."

The point is, Affleck shows absolute command of tone, mood and pace, throwing a firecracker only one character can see in the middle of an otherwise standard scene of boy courts girl.

He also shows the ability to direct a subtle scene such as this with as much skill and dexterity as an armored car heist, a car chase through the narrow streets of Charlestown, a gun fight in the bowels of Fenway Park (filmed on location).

In front of the camera, Affleck gives the best lead performance of his career.

Like virtually everyone in his neighborhood, Doug is a damaged soul. A former hockey star, he blew his one way out of his inevitable life of crime. He is resigned to his fate when we meet him, far from content with his lot in life but confident in his abilities.

Through his bond with Claire, which, unlike every other relationship in his life, is not based on intimidation and not rooted in the despair of his surroundings, Doug starts to see the world and his place in it differently. A visit with his father (Chris Cooper), an almost legendary criminal now serving five life terms, a man who threw in the towel on his life long ago, further sets Doug on his path of finding a way out.

And so we get the time-honored heist movie tradition of "one last job."

Similarly, the burgeoning relationship of Doug and Claire is purely the stuff of movies. But this is a movie after all, and it is grounded in the gritty authenticity of the setting and the people who populate it. Affleck has a sharp eye for faces and the details of his native city, and a keen ear for the street-tough dialect of its denizens. There is an almost poetic quality to the pointed dialogue delivered in clipped, heavily accented fashion.

And what a cast Affleck assembled to deliver his dialogue. Renner, as Doug's best friend, who's looking at a third strike should he get pinched again, injects a constant sense of danger and unpredictability, his work here as strong as his Oscar-nominated turn in "The Hurt Locker."

"Mad Men's" Jon Hamm projects calm and cool, yet seething underneath, as the FBI agent on Doug's trail.

Blake Lively of "Gossip Girl" fame is surprisingly strong playing against type as Jem's sister/Doug's former flame, a single mom who works as a drug mule for a local "florist" played by a deliciously malicious Pete Postlethwaite.

"The Town" hits not one false note, despite a plot that easily could have come across as contrived.

Affleck's reinvention in recent years has gone largely under the radar. It's complete now, with "The Town" finding him in full auteur mode, confirming the promise of "Gone Baby Gone."

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use. 125 minutes.)

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