Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall, the hedgehog and the fox, combine forces to excellent effect in “The Town,” a fast-paced, character-driven heist movie that combines robberies with romance and solidifies Affleck’s reputation as an actor with a genuine gift for directing.
The hedgehog, in philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated formulation, knows one big thing, and the big thing Boston native Affleck knows inside out is his hometown. It’s the site of this film, his “Gone Baby Gone” directing debut, as well as the Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting” screenplay that launched his career.
The fox, by contrast, knows many little things, and Hall is a perfect chameleon of an actress whose extraordinary range of parts, from roles in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Please Give” to the “Red Riding” trilogy, illustrates that she is capable of becoming anybody anywhere.
“The Town” also shows signs that just because Affleck does his best work in Boston, it doesn’t mean he’s limited to it. He’s had a hand (along with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) in the film’s nicely done screenplay and he’s gotten excellent performances out of such formidable costars as " The Hurt Locker’s” Jeremy Renner, “Mad Men’s” John Hamm, Chris Cooper, Pete Postlethwaite and Blake Lively.
Affleck also seems more confident and at ease in the director’s chair this time around and less like the actor with something to prove. The film’s palpable authenticity is less self-conscious than it was in “Gone Baby Gone” and Affleck is able to create a strong enough sense of verisimilitude to allow us to buy into the film’s unlikely premise.
Based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan, “The Town” is set in Charlestown, a slowly gentrifying blue-collar Boston neighborhood that has apparently produced more bank robbers than any comparable area in the world.
It’s a crack team of four of those locally bred criminal professionals we see first, wearing skeleton Halloween masks and expertly taking down a bank in nearby Cambridge. Quick, slick and forceful, the team is savvy enough to check potential cash for dye packs and bait bills and understands that being loud and scary is half the battle.
The strategist and planner of this gang of four is Doug MacRay (Affleck), a wary and determined man of almost feral intelligence. The actor, looking tattooed and haggard but extremely buff, makes MacRay convincingly blue collar but also someone who could be reflective around the edges if the situation demanded it. Which it soon does.
Under ordinary circumstances, MacRay would never meet Claire Keesey (Hall), the manager of the bank he and his masked team rob. When Claire is too terrified to open the vault, however, he takes her hand and calms her down like an instructor in a yoga class, and then looks on aghast when his closest friend and partner Jem impulsively decides to briefly kidnap her.
As played by the redoubtable Renner, an actor who is expert at humanizing dangerous, possibly psychotic menace, Jem is the wild card of MacRay’s gang, the man who is capable of anything. He and MacRay go back to childhood and MacRay briefly dated Jem’s hard-nosed sister Krista (Lively), so when Jem worries that Claire, who turns out to live nearby, might be able to recognize them, MacRay knows it’s less risky if he volunteers to find out himself.
MacRay engineers a meet cute at a neighborhood laundromat, and because Claire is in a fragile, post-traumatic state after the robbery, she is more receptive than she might otherwise be to the attentions of the handsome local with the deadpan charm. It’s a credit to the skill of the filmmaking in general and the acting in particular that this increasingly serious relationship is conveyed in a convincing way.
Helping to make this happen is time spent constructing a solid backstory for MacRay, involving his parents and his younger days. We get to meet his imprisoned hard-case father (Cooper, mightily impressive in his only scene) as well as the sinister Fergie Colm (Postlethwaite), a local crime kingpin.
“The Town” pays equal attention to the illegal side of its story, boasting several exciting robberies and a tense car chase through Boston’s narrow North End. And since traditional crime dramas are only as strong as the strength of the lawmen pursuing the evildoers, Hamm is ideally cast as implacable FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley, relentless in his pursuit of MacRay and his team.
Though the FBI always seems one step behind MacRay, that is too close for the criminal’s comfort, and as the walls start closing in he has to make some serious decisions. As for Affleck, the decision he made to star in and direct “The Town” was one of the best he’s made in a while.