Armed and disguised behind grim skull masks Doug Macray (Ben Affleck) and his gang storm a bank. The obligatory CCTV shots of the robbery provide a sense of immediacy, and tension mounts as Doug calms nervy bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) while she opens the safe. Doug is an ethical criminal, seeking a smooth job with no casualties, but his unhinged cohort James (Jeremy Renner) lashes out violently against a clerk and takes Claire hostage. Despite these snags the getaway is unchallenged and Claire is abandoned, physically unharmed, on a beach.
The opening to The Town (2010), Affleck’s next venture into directing after his engaging debut Gone Baby Gone (2007), is well paced, exciting and exemplary of the film’s set pieces. However, while Gone Baby Gone’s morally shady streets and complex narrative are immersive, The Town’s transparent plotting and clichéd characterisation are distancing. The setting is Charlestown, ominously announced in the trailer as the residence of most of those responsible for the 300 bank robberies committed in Boston every year. Regardless of how accurate these claims are, The Town shows a distinct lack of interest in scrutinising their socioeconomic causes. Charlestown is a mere framing device; a turbulent setting to force an intelligent, well meaning chap like Doug into crime. A troubled childhood, vile FBI agents and personal commitments to his gang are among other plot elements conspiring against him.
Affleck’s one-mannerism-fits-all acting isn’t as gripping as his gunfights. His brow furrows, eyelids droop and jaw shifts around uneasily whether sorrowful, lost in existential reflection or just tired and peckish. To prevent Claire being violently silenced by James after the robbery, Doug tracks her down. Some sinister uncertainty as to whether Doug’s affection for Claire is only a way of ensuring his gangs safety would be welcome here, but he’s smitten immediately. Hiding his past won’t be easy though and, naturally, he’s forced into ‘one last job’. Claire represents innocence and salvation, which isn’t consistent with her job as a recession perpetrating bank manager, so her spare time is spent volunteering at a youth centre. Hall plays Claire with believable, if slightly sickening, vulnerability and righteousness, adding to the decidedly cheesy aroma.
Siblings James and Krista (Blake Lively) spice up The Town. As the psychotic James, Renner exudes the same gratifying ruthlessness as he did in The Hurt Locker (2008), but with added sadism. Meanwhile, Doug’s former lover Krista opens a window into his darker side, mainly through the hostility he shows her. But the Hollywood handbook states that we can’t have too much sympathy for a drug addicted single mother. Besides, the sex scene between Doug and Claire is much more passionate then the hollow, animalistic shagging he gives Krista.
In an isolated jab at contemporary politics an FBI agent jokes that they could only get 24 hour surveillance on Doug’s gang ‘if one of them converted to Islam’. The throwaway nature of this comment exposes The Town’s avoidance of anything too edgy. Like Doug, Affleck is trying to put the past behind him but, while his assured technique impresses, he needs to find fresh territory.