Can we talk about costumes for a second? There are many things that I believe make The Town a really satisfying movie, but one of the elements that makes it so convincing is the costume design. And I’m not just talking about the masks: The skull masks used in the opening robbery, and the eerie nun masks used in a later robbery (as made famous by the movie’s poster and billboards), are pretty remarkable, and I’m not sure how any future bank robbery movie will top them.
But the detail observed in the regular, every-day clothing worn by The Town’s principal cast and all of the people around the periphery is equally effective. Costumes are one of those crafts in cinema that you’re not supposed to notice until you’re supposed to notice them (or unless you’re a rigorous movie freak like me and mine), which is why strong costuming in a movie is often easy to overlook. But just take a closer look at the outfits on display in The Town, and how they build character – from the tracksuits worn by Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner’s blue-collar career criminals (they’re not the same guy but they kinda dress like it), the bang-me barfly get-ups worn by Blake Lively’s troubled and needy character, the young-professional outfits chosen by Rebecca Hall’s bank manager character, the subtle distinctions between the suits favored by Titus Welliver’s local detective and Jon Hamm’s ambitious federal agent, and the off-the-rack casual boringness of Pete Postlethwaite’s deceptively threatening florist-front gangster. We learn a little bit about these people even before they tell us their history and their thoughts. Clothes are character.
Ben Affleck understands this, as director, and so does his costume designer, Susan Matheson (who previously worked on The Kingdom and a bunch of Will Ferrell movies.) So I’m just saying, before we give abundant (and deserved credit) to the actors and writers of this movie, let’s give some credit to Susan Matheson and her crew. And to Ben Affleck, who is a smart guy and a talented guy and who knows that surrounding himself with talented collaborators is going to make everyone look better. (He also has cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor on board, both of whom have worked on every Paul Thomas Anderson movie to date.) Okay, so now on to the story:
I’m not going to be the first person or the last to liken The Town to a kind of Heat Junior, with Ben Affleck and Jon Hamm standing in for Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The French poster for The Town even has this to say about it: “Un Thriller Redoubtable Dans La Lignee De Heat!” I have no idea what most of that means, but it’s obvious that for once, the French and I happen to be on the same page. I love Heat. I’ve seen it a ridiculous amount of times. (Especially considering the running time.) I adore its sincerity and even its imperfections. It’s a big blue balls-out modern classic. But I’ll tell you something: As a humongous fan of that earlier crime epic, the comparison with the younger flick doesn’t bother me one little bit. The Town may not entirely capture the scope or the atmosphere that marks the best moments of Michael Mann’s work, but I am entirely happy to see any new movie that takes it as an influence, and has a similar sense of ambition to it. Ben Affleck and his people are shooting for the moon here, and forget about hitting the stars – they hit me right where it counts, in my movie-loving heart.
The Town was originally a novel called Prince Of Thieves, by Chuck Hogan, a talented crime novelist who later wrote The Strain and The Fall with Guillermo Del Toro. It’s the story of Doug MacRay, a local Boston boy who had a promising hockey career in front of him but ended up pulling robberies with the neighborhood crowd. On a bank job, Doug’s partner Jem impulsively takes a hostage, a assistant manager named Claire. She’s blindfolded and eventually let go, but the fear eventually arises that she might be able to identify them. Worried about what Jem might do, Doug insists on being the one to follow Claire. He gets too close, they meet, and eventually fall in love. So you’ve got the conflict of him wanting to protect her by not telling her the truth, and the pressure of local crime bosses wanting him to get back to work when he’s feeling the urge to retire, and the efforts of local police and the feds to bust up the gang. It’s a sprawling, multi-character spin on a very simple high-concept romance. And it’s pretty great.
Ben Affleck is really good in the movie, directing himself as a guy who’s torn in several different directions: between history and hope, between his girl and his buddies, between responsibility and free will. His performance gets at this very relatable masculine dilemma, of having something you know you have to tell your girl that she won’t like but that you don’t want her to hear from somewhere else – while playing that very human concern against the plot-based cops-and-robbers conflict.
As his opposite number, Jon Hamm is really bold and interesting. He’s not afraid to play his character as a total dick, even as technically you could say he’s on the side of the good guys. He can be charming when he wants or needs to be, but at the same time he’s almost viciously determined to catch these crooks. He seems to take it personally in a way that you’d almost prefer that federal agents not take their jobs so personally. He makes it easier to root for Doug MacRay and his boys to get away with it, let me put it that way. It’s funny – I realized after the movie that, having not seen Mad Men (I know, I know), I’ve only ever seen Jon Hamm in comedies, on SNL and 30 Rock. This was the first dramatic work I’ve seen from the guy, and now I’m just as impressed with him as the rest of you are.
Obviously Jeremy Renner is pretty terrific too, as the hot-tempered sociopath Jem. I say “obviously” because this is his first role off of his career-elevating showcase in The Hurt Locker, but in truth, he’s been playing this particular kind of role, the strangely likable bad guy, for many many movies now (most notably in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.) Renner is taking on a pretty generic bank-robbery stereotype – and I can say that because I’ve written one myself – that of the hair-trigger-tempered cowboy of the gang who is on an increasingly bleak trajectory, but [along with the strong writing of the piece] he’s able to invest that role with all kinds of fascinating shading. Jem is a guy who doesn’t see a way out of doing what he’s doing, and isn’t deep thinker enough to even consider it. Doing bad things is just what guys like us do, he thinks, and eventually it’ll buy us enough comfort that we can stake out enough beers and barbecues to last until a heart attack and not a cop’s bullet does us in. He figures that if he’s gonna be a bank robber, there’s no one he wants next to him more than his best buddy, who grew up with him and looks at him like a brother. Jem doesn’t even realize that he’s pulling Doug down. He just doesn’t see it that way. Renner plays all of this without saying it – again, his character couldn’t even think up that much self-awareness, let alone say it out loud. It’s pretty fantastic character work.
The entire cast is that good, from Blake Lively, who I’ve only ever seen on magazine covers, to Chris Cooper, who plays the soul of the movie out in just one scene. I’d single them all out but I took all that space writing about Jeremy Renner. And there’s so much else to like about this movie: The local flavor which comes from shooting on location, the love of “real people” faces that Affleck first showed in Gone Baby Gone(sometimes he’ll dedicate entire shots to images of walk-ons and extras, just to let the camera capture their unique faces), the solid musical score, the exemplary photography (Elswit!), the interest in the human stories amidst all the car chases and gun battles (all of which are thrillingly-staged, by the way), and the palpable emotion that so many modern movies just don’t have.And the humor! The way I’m talking, you might not know that The Town is as funny as it is. The climactic heist, not to ruin anything, happens at a location that just has to draw a smile on the face of a New Yorker like me. (It works if you’re a Boston local too, I’m sure.) That’s how this movie operates: It’s serious, but it’s funny too. It’s no comedy, but there are small moments of genuine laughs that make clear that, unlike so many other films in this genre, this is no kind of resolutely morose enterprise. That’s life, man – sometimes the funniest and weirdest little things happen right in the middle of the most dramatic moments of your life.
I’ll tell you something real right now: Ben Affleck may well have been studying Michael Mann as he was preparing to make The Town, and first of all, if that’s the case then he didn’t fall too short of the mark. But here’s another big compliment: What I’m really reminded of here is nothing less than early Eastwood. Look at the parallels: Actor-turned-director surrounds himself with exceptional talent and after a solid debut, raises the scope of his work significantly with his second feature. He shows a smart grasp of genre, an interest in subverting myth, and all kinds of promise. Let’s see where this goes, but it seems pretty damn encouraging so far. Is The Town a perfect movie? Maybe not, but who needs that anyway? All we need are strong genre flicks with a ton of heart, and that’s just what we got with this one.