***½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper
screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
directed by Ben Affleck
by Walter Chaw If I'm still not entirely sold on Ben Affleck as an actor of depth, I'm completely sold on him as a director of depth. A director good enough, as it happens, to identify and avoid the actor's own weaknesses and augment his strengths, and to guide Affleck the actor to his best performance in a picture, The Town, that would be something like a revelation were Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, not so exceptional. Absolutely filthy with its story of place, count The Town as a tough-love love letter to Boston suburb Charlestown, a place established in the film as a breeding ground for bank robbers. Affleck plays Doug MacCray, the head of one such crew that also includes childhood buddy Jimmy (Jeremy Renner, excellent again) in an echo of the macho/familial dynamic established in the Aussie bank robber drama Animal Kingdom. More about the ties that bind men to a place and an idea of manhood than about the crimes themselves, The Town compensates for what it lacks in originality with its patience and its bracing trust in its screenplay and cast. Monologues that could be didactic are laced with what feels like genuine yearning; a moment in which Doug tells new girlfriend Claire (Rebecca Hall) about his childhood could have (should have) been embarrassing, but comes off under Affleck's surprising wisdom as heartfelt, even resonant.
The minimal violence, when it erupts, carries with it the flat, ugly force of a Michael Mann action sequence (another tie to Animal Kingdom, as it happens)--the gunfire is sharp and obscene. There's a momentum that pulls The Town, in fact, even as the feel of it is something like torpor or regret. It's a Steve Earle song in movie form, and it's similarly able to sketch in details with a well-crafted line and the sort of understanding of genre that substitutes at times for pages of exposition. For all the talking there is in this film, it's the long silences that speak volumes. It's as pared down and lean as Affleck's new physique--feeling, much like his first film, like a product of the New American Cinema in terms of its minute focus on broken characters in a broken world. Moments that should ring false (like Claire's revelation about a dead brother; like an entire character, Krista ("Gossip Girl"'s Blake Lively), who rings like a plot device), carry with them instead a certain weight of subtle, devastating truth.
Doug's complication is that Claire was made a victim of one of his crew's larcenies, taken hostage for a few minutes and now under the surveillance of the FBI, led by a frustrated Frawley (Jon Hamm). Doug engineers a meet-cute with Claire in an attempt to find out how much she knows and how compromised, as a consequence, his crew has been. A standout dialogue in a film driven by the same has Doug trying to edit the advice he gives her about revealing a crucial bit of information to the feds against his own self interest, only to discover that under the circumstances, what works in his self interest is also what's best for her. It's a graceful way to introduce the idea of corruption and complexity without turning The Town into a standard procedural. It's so good, in fact, that it actually establishes The Town as the rarest of mature, adult dramas: the kind that doesn't proselytize from any particular pulpit, content instead to be about distinct, three-dimensional personalities in complicated, realistic situations arising from a discernible past. Take the introduction of kingpin The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite) and the relish with which he relates a piece of Doug's puzzle. Again, the revelation in and of itself is of the standard pot-boiler variety, but the context of it--the way that Affleck places it in the story much later than expected and how he pays it off in a manner that's satisfying but not pandering--suggests the emergence of a genuine talent. It still feels odd to say it, but I can't wait for the next Affleck joint.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner shepherds The Town to Blu-ray in a combo pack that includes an extended cut of the film, which runs a whopping 28 minutes longer than the theatrical version (TV). The two cuts are housed on the same dual-layer disc, though not, mysteriously, via seamless branching. (More on that below.) Frankly, the "Extended Cut Version" (ECV) is self-indulgent at best, and the sequence with Doug taking Claire to visit her boss in the hospital should've stayed on the cutting-room floor, period, even if reinstating it assuaged co-writer/director/star Ben Affleck's guilt for grotesquely squandering Victor Garber. That being said, although many of the additional scenes between Doug and Claire are, by Affleck's own admission, nothing groundbreaking, they pre-empt the couple's inevitable break-up enough that the whole of their courtship feels less perfunctory. True to form, the unrated ECV contains more skin (i.e., disembodied strippers--which, when I was a kid, didn't count as real nudity), and it gives Blake Lively and Jon Hamm more to do, sometimes in tandem; "Mad Men" fans should get a kick out of a brief insert in which Hamm's Frawley sips on something non-regulation in his FBI cubicle after hours. The Town was so good to begin with that it's hard to call the ECV an improvement, per se, but it has a breadth that's probably ruined me for the TV. (I'm reminded of Tim Lucas's great review of Donnie Darko: "[The Director's Cut] strains too hard to be understood on the first pass. On the other hand, after watching the DC once or twice, the [theatrical cut] begins to lose some of its pleasures...") What's not clear from his patchy, humble commentary (edited to conform to both incarnations) is which version Affleck considers definitive.
Also on board is "Ben's Boston," six HiDef "Focus Points" you can choose to have pop up intermittently during the feature or watch on their own at your leisure. Totalling a breezy 30 minutes, these featurettes--"Pulling off the Perfect Heist" (3 mins.), "The Town" (5 mins.), "Nuns with Guns: Filming in the North End" (5 mins.), "The Real People of The Town" (3 mins.), "Ben Affleck: Director & Actor" (8 mins.), and "The Cathedral of Boston" (7 mins.)--mostly limit the discussion to facets of shooting on location in and around Charlestown. Of interest is a practical defense for the use of identity-concealing masks--it enabled a stunt team to seamlessly double for the actors--as well as the revelation that the climactic Mexican stand-off set in the bowels of Fenway Park, the eponymous "cathedral of Boston," really was shot there. Affleck also reveals that he had filmed at Fenway Park once before, when he and Matt Damon were extras in Field of Dreams. And, of course, there are the expected salutes to that notorious New England pride; an incredulous Lively tells the story of a woman who hastily returned to Charlestown after moving just 10 minutes away.
As for The Town's 2.40:1 presentation proper: Warner's decision to pack five hours of 1080p video and uncompressed audio onto one platter doesn't seem to adversely affect the image, but I did wonder whether the shadows were intentionally so dense (they're not, for all that, detail-free), or whether the amazingly filmlike grain wasn't sometimes unnaturally noisy. If the movie's colour palette looks a little baked, rest assured this is intentional, as Affleck mentions in his yakker that DP Robert Elswit mixed film stock balanced for tungsten with natural light, causing even sclera to go blue. (Dare I say teal?) The immersive, dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD MA track honours a clever but not gimmicky, aggressive but not shrill mix--or should I say tracks, since the TV's audio is a 24-bit option while the ECV's is 16-bit. Whatever the reason for the discrepancy, I'd be very surprised if anyone could tell the difference except as a placebo effect. An anti-tobacco PSA (SD) cues up on startup along with the studio's Blu-ray spot (HD). The keepcase additionally contains the retail DVD release of The Town. Originally published: December 20, 2010.
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