In the first five minutes of The Town, a group of precision criminals, donning skeleton masks, knock over a bank. Everything is going smoothly until someone triggers the silent alarm. The slick crew devolves quickly into violence and kidnapping as they make a sloppy getaway with the loot and terrified bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall: Please Give).
After releasing the woman and laundering their money, the crew meet in the neighborhood of Charlestown for a job evaluation. Crew leader Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck: Extract) is less than thrilled with the kidnapping. The problem is Doug’s best friend Jem (Jeremy Renner: The Hurt Locker), who no longer curbs his violent impulses.
Case in point: that pretty bank manager. Jem wants her taken care of, rightly afraid she may have seen or heard too much. Doug insists that he’ll handle the woman, who lives only blocks from his house. He starts off stalking Claire and ends up dating her.
As Doug and Claire make puppy eyes at each other, G-Man Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm: Mad Men) begins a relentless hunt for Doug’s gang. He tears the town apart, daring the crew to pull another job.
Doug tries to keep the group running like non-violent professionals, invoking the wisdom of his incarcerated father (Chris Cooper: The Company Men). But Doug doesn’t have the stomach for it anymore. As he sees the effect the robbery had on Claire and begins to fall for her, Doug starts tiring of the family business and looking for one last score to fund his getaway.
All this distraction makes the jobs sloppier and tightens the noose around Doug’s neck. In desperation, he makes his last-job-before-I-retire play: robbing Boston’s cathedral.
If you don’t know what that is, you don’t watch enough baseball.
Ben Affleck’s impressive second directorial outing may finally redeem his much-maligned career. The director displays confidence in his craft, experimenting with visual techniques and dwelling on the literal and figurative masks people wear. It’s no mistake that a mask slipping in the first heist reveals an identifying tattoo to Claire. He also constructs a vivid and believable criminal neighborhood, where hard men speak with hard ‘a’s and dropped ‘r’s and carry on a family trade of robbing and lying passed down from their fathers.
The Town is set in a refined-pulp universe, where elements of reality are disregarded or heightened to ratchet up tension. It’s a genre device that Affleck uses brilliantly, bouncing you between tender romantic scenes, gut-churning chases and comic relief. The movie pulls from the gravitas and tension of Heat and the wacky caper comedy of The Italian Job.
Affleck also relies on a top-notch cast to fill out the film. Hamm turns what could have been a one-note antagonist into a flawed but fun Fed. Affleck’s performance is confident and restrained, a leading man who wins the audience without cloying its affection.
Oscar-nominee Renner steals the film, invoking a caged dog in most of his scenes, loyal to Doug but spoiling to be unleashed. Jem knows the end of his story and can’t help but follow it chapter and verse.
There are flaws in The Town, to be sure. Claire is a little too perfect, though Hall does her best to charm. And Blake Lively is underused as Jem’s painted floozy of a sister. But overall, the engaging heist flick delivers the goods.