Ben Affleck’s Boston roots loom large in his body of work – in Good Will Hunting, or Gone Baby Gone, he shows us his city, and in particular he shows what sort of people, especially men, it produces. And as the title of his 2010 crime flick, The Town suggests, this time it’s Boston itself that is the subject of the film.
One blue-collar Boston neighborhood has produced more bank robbers and armored car thieves than anywhere in the world.
The movie is about a gang of armed robbers, led by Affleck’s Doug. His childhood friend Jem, very well played by Jeremy Renner, is the gang’s resident loose cannon and the foil to Doug’s comparatively calm, clear-sighted character. The film starts with a bank robbery during which Jem takes an employee, Claire, hostage; the gang later find out that she lives in their neighborhood. In a plot device which stretches credibility almost too far, Doug meets and starts a relationship with Claire. You can probably guess what Jem thinks of that.
The best heist movies aren’t about heists. Although the actual crime scenes in The Town are exceptionally well realised – among other things, this is a very exciting crime thriller – the majority of the film is about the relationships between the main players – Doug, Claire and Jem. Jem is by far the most interesting character, and it’s his need for Doug to validate him, to stay in Boston, to keep going along with the heists, which is the single most interesting thing in the film. In one scene, just as Doug is making clear his decision to leave Boston and their shared life of crime, their shared history, Jem attacks him, and after the fight we see his vulnerability, his love for his friend, his inability to express himself in any way except violently. Crime movies deal with male relationships, and this is Affleck’s favourite theme also; look at the two of them, constrained by the bars, metaphorical and literal, sprawled at opposite ends of the screen, trying to bridge the gap between them.
Crime drama often extends this analysis of male relationships into the father / son relationship, and Affleck uses this convention to offer some comment on the roots of the movie’s criminality. We hear how Jem’s father died in prison, and we see Doug visit his own father, an apparently unrepentant bank robber and murderer, who is serving life. His father expects his son to be involved in crime; there appears to be nothing else for him to do. Boston is shown as a hard, brutal place where options are limited; we hear about the racial problems (Jem’s sister Krista complains about the black people who ‘thinks there’s no more serious white people in Charlestown.’) Drugs, too, of course; Krista seems to live permanently on the edge of losing her child (who may or may not be Doug’s baby) due to her Oxy addiction. Clearly, and admirably, Affleck wants to make a comment about the social causes of crime and addiction. Roger Ebert praises the effort, but isn’t convinced of its success.
Crime itself is represented as brutal and uncompromising; this is not Nine Queens with its likeable and relatively harmless rogues. We see multiple extended scenes of the gang at work, and there’s no shortage of blood and gunfire. The film is non-judgmental about this violence, but does make a point of showing how the police at work are pretty much as brutal as the criminals. Again, as is common in crime drama, the line between good and bad, good guys and bad guys, is not as clear as it might be.
Affleck gets a lot of criticism, but it’s largely undeserved. He’s an okay actor and a good director, and he’s trying to make serious, albeit unoriginal, points. The Town is a very good film with some outstanding performances and, particularly, a fantastic rendering of Boston as a cold, hard place, not much different from the prison which casts such a shadow across the lives of the men in the film.