Ben Affleck’s ‘The Town’ Presents Dilemmas

“Take your time. Breathe.” Trying to calm the assistant manager of the bank he’s robbing, the robber Doug (Ben Affleck) is gentle, even concerned. Though he’s got a gun pointed at Claire (Rebecca Hall) and a skeleton mask hiding his face, he puts his hand briefly on hers, a close-up emphasizing that she’s trembling and his touch is, against odds, calming.

Brief and evocative, this moment near the start of The Town sets in motion the frequently preposterous and mostly predictable plot to follow. Doug is the head of a four-man crew that robs banks and armored cars, a known component in the blue-collar Cambridge neighborhood called Charlestown. Doug explains in an opening voiceover that bank robbery has “become like a trade,” passed on from fathers to sons; significantly, he’s uncomfortable with his lot, sensitive and philosophical in a way that his best friend and fellow thief Jem (Jeremy Renner) is not. A hothead who’s ever apt to inflict sudden, vicious violence, Jem acts out during this first job, smacking Claire’s colleague’s head with his gun while his own boys watch in horror.

The contrast between Jem and Doug encourages your sympathy with the latter, who goes along with Jem’s last-second decision to take Claire as a blindfolded hostage, but continues to try to soothe her throughout the ordeal. Even when they let her loose some hours later, Claire faces not only with her traumatic flashbacks, but also an FBI agent, Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), who insinuates she might have been working with the bad guys. Before she has time to feel morally affronted by the suggestion, Doug approaches her in a laundromat, ostensibly touched because she’s crying while trying mightily to maintain her usual demure public face.

The film steps into a mess of emotional improbability when Claire agrees to a date with this stranger who lends her money for the dryer. Yes, their coupledom has been sealed since he touched her hand in the bank. And yes, their affinity is based in their similar desires to escape distressing situations. And yes, it is important for the formula that Doug finds romance with a pretty civilian, who has no idea of his background or livelihood (she believes he works at Boston Sand & Gravel), so that he might seem unlike Jem or his other friends. But it’s still a trite trick to frame Doug’s appeal with his girlfriend’s ignorance, and it makes the rest of The Town feel stale and dishonest too.

That’s not to say it that this reluctant-criminal-as-hero formula is ever easy to make new or compelling. It helps that this iteration offers two daunting embodiments of Doug’s dilemma, in his father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), and his mentor/boss, Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite). Though neither elder suggests their choices have been right — dad’s miserable in prison and Fergie runs a florist’s shop, where he clips roses while his beefy bald gunsel keeps cautious watch on all visitors. Neither offers much in the way of encouragement when Doug wants out. Gazing at one another through a prison visiting room window, Doug and his dad are mirror reflections, both dour, damaged, and utterly distrustful of the world around them.

But, if their faces reveal father and son’s matching, lifelong resignation and disappointment, Doug’s standoffs with Fergie emphasize their differences. Doug looks positively idealistic compared to the older man, whose incredible face — so bulbous, so deeply lined, so wretched — seems the abject inverse of Doug’s. No matter how scruffy his beard or sad his eyes, Doug is plainly the anti-Fergie and, for that matter, the anti-Jem. He is surely capable of deceit, manipulation, and cruelty, a set of character traits demonstrated especially when he’s with his ex, Krista (Blake Lively), whose combination of overkill mascara, desperate sexuality, and oxy habit make her the anti-Claire. But because Doug is regretful, because he doesn’t take pleasure in his bad behavior — even if he’s very good at it — he will not have to turn into his dad or Fergie (whose threats, say, “I’m gonna clip your nuts,” are bitterly literal). He will find a way to resist his legacy, however barbarically and however tragically.

This trajectory is built into The Town‘s source, Chuck Hogan’s 2004 novel, Prince of Thieves. And it lends itself to the self-serious of Affleck’s first directing effort, Gone Baby Gone (also about dire fates and woeful families in a small town), as well as Clint Eastwood’s earnest bad-family sagas, from Mystic River to Million Dollar Baby to Changeling. In each, the story is moralistic, the mood mournful, and the action brutal (a post-job chase through narrow alleys, pitting multiple cop cruisers against Doug’s team outfitted in nuns’ costumes and deathy masks, is particularly propulsive).

The Town‘s version is unsurprising and methodical, less impressively jarring than Gone Baby Gone, more ordinary. Still, the climactic last-job-and-shootout at Affleck’s beloved Fenway Park is at once harrowing and rhythmic. And a single, lingering, low-angle close-up of Postlethwaite’s face goes a long way toward making any movie at least a little compelling.

RATING 5 / 10