Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Toonie Plays a Townie ***

This year the thriller genre has been ressurected, with pictures like The Ghost WriterShutter Island and Inception, upstaging larger CGI-driven movies by placing an emphasis on story and psychology and using practical effects to enhance the narrative.  Now we can add The Town to this list.  Ben Affleck's sophomore directing effort is a taut, canny, thriller in the tradition of the old Warner Bros gangster films that starred James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the 30's and 40's...and it is absolutely riveting.

The story concerns a crew of armed robbers in Boston's Charlestown projects, who live by an unspoken code, cultivating love and family when they aren't sticking people up.  Despite their brilliant tactics, it doesn't take long before the law catches on to them in the form of stalwart, mercenary, John Hamm, who is one in a cast of standout performances that bring the story to life.  Affleck himself, who has often strained to be credible gives a tough, assured performance as the thief who hungers for redemption and finds it in the person of Rebecca Hall, a hostage that his crew abducts during their inaugural bank heist.  Despite his better judgment, Affleck falls for his former prey.  He is a townie and she is a "toonie" (a word the locals use to slander encroaching yuppies) and this (as they say) is where the plot thickens.

Affleck himself is the ultimate toonie by local standards, based on his success and yet the movie feels like it was directed by an insider.  It's pulpy material to be sure and the story doesn't earn points for originality, but in Affleck's capable hands it does what the best thrillers do: explore the moral implications of crime.  The FBI is personified as a vigilant, but largely unscrupulous force, while the thieves have a backwards sense of ghetto duty.  Yes, the villains are romanticized at times, but Affleck never shies away from the violence of the story or the impact it has on the innocent bystanders who are unwittingly embroiled in it.  It is a world in which anyone can turn a corner into darkness, but once they do they're more or less shackled by their choices.

We sense that many of these neighborhood thugs would have thrown in the towel long ago, if only they could extricate themselves from the bonds they formed along the way.  The friends they needed to rise up are now the very same people holding them back.  In a sense the movie reads like an anagram to Michael Mann's Heat, which was all about avoiding the kind of relationships that Affleck's characters readily embrace.  Ultimately, The Town can't stand up to the best in the genre.  You may find yourself longing for the virtuoso cinematic derring-do of old Hollywood, as visually it resembles virtually any TV police procedural of the moment.  But Affleck makes up for what he lacks in style with genuine grit and authenticity.  I would be lying if I didn't admit that for most of this very tense ride I was sitting in the theater, squeezing my fists and wondering if it might just stick with me a year from now.