Sunday, September 19, 2010

Film Review #235: The Town
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper, Pete Postlethwaite

Quick: how many movies can you name that depict the crook’s decision to go straight after this one last job, one last run, one last fight or race? Sometimes he’s not the bad guy, but what he does is usually really dangerous and makes him a loner. Usually there is somebody in the story who’s not letting him go gently. Often some new connection that will be outside his grasp unless he does change has inspired this. Sometimes, he is even a she. Anyway, faulting Ben Affleck’s The Town for being “formulaic” is short-sighted and misses the point. Of course we know what’s coming. But we’re interested, again and again, in how it arrives, and in this titillating notion that one might, as Affleck’s Doug MacRay says gutturally, groping for words for this new idea, “make a change.” The Town opened in wide release last Friday and went right to first place at the box office, so apparently quite a few of us still wonder enough about this to pay the ever steeper ticket price.

The Town opens shortly after another similar film, Dutch director Anton Corbijn’s The American with George Clooney in the title role as the assassin Jack. Affleck began his later-in-life debut as director with Gone Baby Gone and The American is also Corbijn’s second feature film, following his formidable 2007 debut, Control, about the band Joy Division and their lead singer, Ian Curtis, who hung himself on the eve of the band’s big American break.

The American and The Town are radically different in some ways on the surface. Jack lives anonymously, traveling where he’s told by his Rome-based handler, his few incipient attachments a dangerous weakness. When attacked, he erupts with icy, unhesitating ferocity, chasing down and killing his enemies. Previously a photographer, Corbijn places Jack against vast landscapes – first a frozen Swedish lake beside a brooding forest and then the sparse Italian hill country – and proceeds to disrupt American expectations of this genre by long, patient, often largely quiet blocks of story. Granting Jack a lovely young woman who agrees to go away with him, Corbijn has Jack give her an instruction utterly out of character for its sheer logistical improbability – Jack’s nothing if not coolly strategic – when Jack tells her to meet him “by the river,” all for the sake of returning Jack to their private Eden for his last breath.

Clooney’s an absurd figure in a fragmented world where the center does not hold, but Affleck’s bank-robber Dougie MacRay is so rooted in his working-class Irish enclave that he can’t get free to turn around. Lifelong resident of Charlestown, just across the bridge from Boston proper, MacRay’s never been out of this metro area except for one ill-fated trip to hockey camp – he blew that picking fights – and trips to visit his father (Chris Cooper) in prison. No quiet, lingering pans of vast hillside in The Town – ough there are some sweeping pans of metro Boston - it’s fast and tight, fully urbanth, and fully orchestrated. Doug lives with fellow robber Jem (Jeremy Renner), whose family took him in as a kid after his mother disappeared, and Jem’s sister Krista (Blake Lively). Unlike Jack, Doug prefers not to kill, his reluctance framed against the constant menace of Jem’s jittery, tightly coiled violence. (Intriguingly, Jon Hamm’s special FBI agent is not far from Jem in his own edge of menace.) Both Jem and Krista expect Doug to stay – according to “the rules we grew up with,” says Jem – as does local boss Fergie (Irish actor Pete Postlethwaite).

Here is a point of overlap: Jack’s handler and Doug MacRay’s handler are equally business-minded and merciless. Another: Doug and his girl – the bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), who’s kidnapped in the first robbery and stalked by Doug to the local laundromat, where romance ensues – also have a sort of Eden, though this time it’s a community garden. And then there’s the scene in each movie of the star doing his calisthenics – derided as vanity – but that comes right out of Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), and surely before: the body as weapon, not temple.

You can make these lists all day – what we expect of any genre and how somebody making a movie goes against it. Even if The American does go off the rails, I still want to see what Corbijn does next and it’s nice to see Clooney try this stretch as an actor. But Affleck has a winner, populated with one terrific performance after another, all of them wrestling with whether we could change – and get away with it.

This review appears in the September 23, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. Ben Affleck’s “The Town” is playing in wide release and so is Anton Corbijn’s “The American” with George Clooney.