In the taut thriller “The Town,” Doug MacRay of Charlestown, a blue-collar enclave in Boston notorious for producing more bank robbers than any other town in the U.S., knows precisely what the law says. Threatening a state witness could mean 10 years in prison; for armed bank robbery resulting in murder, one is looking at least 30 years; and for the murder of two guards in a bank heist, up to five life terms. He should know: his own father had committed such crimes and is serving such terms.
Doug (Ben Affleck) is the planning genius and leader of a band for four robbers working for a syndicate boss who runs a flower shop for cover. At one point, Doug confesses to his new girlfriend Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) that he has never killed anyone. His latest dossier consists of two bank heists, and a blitz through the sanctuary of “the cathedral of Boston” — the money vault of the Red Sox’s Fenway Park — that result in the fatal face-smashing of a bank officer, the death of a security guard and the serious wounding of another.
To get an idea of what possible jail term he faces in case of conviction, I asked lawyer John Kriss of Kansas. He categorizes Doug’s crime as a felony murder. His committing a felony (theft) “was directly responsible for the murder and injury.” Since Massachusetts’s law does not sanction the death penalty, “Doug could be on the hook for two life sentences plus others for the battery, for the robbery and all,” says Kriss.
Consequences. “The Town” is about the consequences of crime and what happens when love enters the picture. In the current release “The American,” love threatens to derail the career of George Clooney as a hired killer and he risks consequences of breaking mob rules. Here, Doug’s romantic fling defies Irish “omerta,” the Mafia code of silence, putting him and his men in trouble as the feds, led by ruthless FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), close in.
Affleck directs with great intelligence and tackles the role of a criminal on the verge of conversion with muted passion. He manages to be convincing in a tricky monologue where he describes to Claire that day when his mother disappeared forever. His spiel sounds genteel, not the expected working-class chatter, a far cry from his altercation with his second-in-command and adopted brother Jem (Jeremy Renner), where they fire a barrage of four-letter words.
There is scarcely a moment when “The Town” does not throb with action, crackles with crisp dialogue or simmer with conflict, notably between Doug and Jem. The bank heists and the car chase through the narrow streets of old Boston are shrewdly paced, the goons and police dueling with heart-pounding intensity, the sound then suddenly turning mute and the action frozen in tense pauses, only to ricochet to their bitter end. Affleck steeps Boston’s atmosphere and his scenes in somber blue, offering some relief when autumnal gold and orange start to canopy the city’s red brick counties.
Claire, taken hostage in the opening heist, is pivotal since her traumatic experience stokes Doug’s feelings as well as the intense interest of FBI agents. The heavy burden to be likable and believable falls on Hall’s lap. She excels in the first task and falters in the other, and she’s not to blame. It doesn’t help that there is a fuzzy edge to her character. She plays Claire, as scripted, with a passivity and resignation that’s out of sync with her job description as bank manager, as though she had climbed the corporate ladder without a dose of feistiness. While Doug is taken in by her simple charm and her community spirit – she helps kids in sports, and Doug once dreamed of a career in ice hockey – their bonding could be only seen as that between a wily but gentle fox and a lost lamb.
Hall’s wardrobe, often dark and nondescript, does not serve her well either, oblivious to her being the neighborhood “toonie,” the yuppie outsider. For the heists, the costume department had found the right Jason helmets and get-up of Mother Superiors from hell, so why didn’t they shop for the smart, say, Gap or Guess casuals for her? The cut-to-cut close-ups that are Affleck’s preferred vehicle for dialogue – oh, those talking heads — also work against her as her unease in a few attempts to find the right tone and emotion is betrayed on the screen. But this much must be said: Hall is electrifying and heartbreaking when she needs to be.
Renner’s gives Jem’s character perfect shading, menacing at times and sometimes explosive. Jem is the loose-cannon type who’s quick to smash a face with a rifle butt in a moment of panic or, stupidly, to bare his masked face during a brutal beating of a Charlestown bully. The zeal that FBI investigator Frawley brings to his job is frightening, but brusque/suave Hamm is more than equal to the task, badgering, cajoling and intimidating potential witnesses to spill the goods on the suspects. His interviews with Claire, Doug and Jem’s sister Krista are free lessons in A Dozen Ways to Manipulate People.
As the mob grandfather Fergie the florist, Pete Postlethwaite has the sharpest lines, pornographic in their cruelty, which he delivers with the lilt and rhythm of Irish poetry. Blake Lively plays soaked-in-dope Krista, who is also Doug’s part-time lover, slutting, slurring and whimpering her way through the narcotic haze, and revealing herself in the clearest terms as an actress to watch.
So finally, “The Town” boils down to consequences. They come fast and furious and with blood. For the final scenes, Affleck finds in the ending of the classic film “Casablanca” a paradigm, or at the very least an inspiration. “The Town” is of course cut from an entirely different mold, from the premise to the atmosphere — although Affleck tends to bathe Boston in blue and dark tones, recalling “Casablanca’s” shadows and grays. And while “Casablanca” is a psychologically complex film that has kept cinema lovers busy dissecting it for decades, “The Town” is more gritty and clear-cut; there are no mystifying issues about it.
But the choices the characters of either film face toward the end do mirror each other and are equally touching: which is it, love or society? A crucial decision taken in “The Town” manages to leave a bittersweet taste that comes close to “Casablanca’s.” This is more than a nod to the classic; it’s a subtle homage with a twist.
And what about the consequences of the thugs’ crimes against the people of Boston? Well, truth be told, on a day like many summer days in Charlestown, they don’t really matter.