Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dirty Old Town

The following column is reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel

Making the rounds promoting his new movie, The Town, actor-director-co-writer Ben Affleck has repeatedly said that he might not be quite comfortable forging a reputation as a “Boston” filmmaker. Of course, the Massachusetts born and bred Affleck first established his rep by co-writing (with fellow Mass native and acting buddy Matt Damon) the well-received Boston-based Good Will Hunting, and bagging a screenwriting Oscar in the process. As recently as 2007 Affleck, following a string of mostly bad movies and poor acting choices, won across the board kudos for his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, a movie adaptation of author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island), the contempo bard of Beantown badness. The Town, set in insular Boston neighborhood known as Charlestown, is a more than solid (and extremely assured) follow-up, and might suggest, contrary to director’s own publicly uttered uncertainties, that Affleck just might be yet another filmmaker whose most resonant work takes place in their native settings, ala Marty Scorsese or Spike Lee or Sidney Lumet’s respective cinematic New Yorks, all in all a particularly ascendant filmmaking level to aspire to.

In Gone Baby Gone, a tight, no-nonsense, gritty thriller, Affleck directed baby brother Casey, but with The Town he’s upped the ante and stepped back in front of the camera too. He plays Doug Macray, a savvy Irish-American tough guy, a supposedly typical townie with a few toes in the straight world, but largely caught up with his crew of professional thugs, all thieves with a heightened sense of code and a pride in their own viscious professionalism. Of course Doug is mirrored by childhood friend, a dyed-in the-wool native and overtly fervent brother-in arms Jimmy Coughlin (Jeremy Remmer), a hard case who has shed himself of any emotional or moral nuances. Doug’s father (Chris Cooper) is doing a lifetime stretch in the penitentiary and his occasional girl (Blake Lively) is both Jim’s sister and a hard living and round heeled fellow townie.

Doug is sharp but conflicted, torn up with both dislike and curiosity for the so-called “toonies” who are slowly gentrifying his stomping grounds, and all shook up about his dueling senses of long held propriety and increasing distaste for his very roots and his hallowed native ground. As the movie progresses Doug’s growing unrest makes him resolve to pull off the proverbial last job with hopes of getting out of Dodge. After being forced to take a bank employee (Rebecca Hall) hostage during a gone- wrong robbery, Doug ups the ante by falling for that same woman (who is simultaneously also a feminine representative of the ever elusive upper middle class), tipping his own sense of moral ambivalence into the danger zone, and imperiling him and his potentially good intentions.

Obviously, Affleck the director makes excellent use of his locations and evokes a solid and affecting sense of local geography, as well as moving the film along with a terse yet implosive pace. His action scenes play out well, lean and mean and subtlety tactile, none of them over amped or wrenched up like most Hollywood actioneers. The Town largely sustains its purposefully tough and neo-realistic mood, although it never attains the grimy melancholy of Gone Baby Gone. Affleck also sharply injects the standard neighborhood crime story tenants with some flavorful verisimilitude, continually punctuated with a lively chorus of barking, yapping, yowling Boston-based verbal gymnastics.

As with so many actors-turned-directors (Eastwood, Redford, Chaplin), Affleck authoritatively guides his fellow actors through some convincing paces, and the overall performance level just about makes up for some of The Town’s weaker edges. Both Chris Cooper and Pete Postlewhite (as one of the local crime lords) straight out walk away with their scenes, and Rebecca Hall managed to do a lot with a little, while Jeremy Remmer (an actor whose recently scorched the screen in The Hurt Locker, and one that moviegoers ought to really set their eyes on) veers into pure white hot Jimmy Cagney territory, as one of those wrong-side-of-town fireplugs whose palatable on screen volatility makes them audience magnets, despite their obvious (and deadly) wrongheadedness. (Only Jon Hamm as the local FBI man hunter seems unable to bring something extra to his archetypical role.)

The Town has obvious echoes to my own favorite modern American film, Marty Scorsese 1972 Mean Streets, but it never scorches the soul or soars into artfulness the way the latter film does. Still, The Town is well played and better executed, and it exhibits an overall directorial keenness, while easily surpassing the often lowered expectations of its particular genre. It’s both credible and watchable, and it hints that Affleck might go back to the mean streets of his beloved state or its capital city, and etch out another tale from the naked city, pure East Coast style.

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