Ben Affleck’s second directed film, The Town, is a moderately diverting, mildly despicable game of cops-and-robbers that counts, in its play for the spectator’s sympathies, on the moral depravity of the public at large, a cynical safe bet. Different from his first effort, Gone Baby Gone, where he handed over the lead role to his brother Casey, brother Ben here keeps it for himself, a sensitive stickup man behind a severe Bahston accent, an inheritance from the Charlestown neighborhood that prides itself on the world’s highest concentration of bank robbers and armored-car heisters.
He is hoped, or more truthfully presumed, to be protected from viewer disapproval by his personal avoidance of killing any innocent parties in the application of his trade, leaving that to the violent loose cannon in his gang of four (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker, and still the cowboy), never mind his legal status as an accessory in such killings or his earnest attempts, when the bullets start flying fast and thick, to add to them firsthand. No one, of course, could mind his killings of a couple of guilty parties, especially one as ugly in every sense as Pete Postlethwaite. Nothing must stand in the way of a lusty hurrah when he gives the written finger to the plodding, pursuing FBI agent (the blockish, squarish Jon Hamm), or in the way of total support and best wishes in his quest of a tropical retirement.
His sensitivity is established at considerable length in what passes for a love angle. Sure, he may maintain, on again and off again, a wham-bam relationship with the loose cannon’s loose sister (Blake Lively, the Traveling Pants sister, stretching herself almost to unintelligibility with her regional accent, out-Bostoning the native Affleck, and to unrecognizability with her eye shadow, mascara, tattoos, décolletage — thank goodness for the identifying mole alongside her nose), but he is ready for something more meaningful with the assistant bank manager taken hostage at a Cambridge branch — the unpremeditated whim of the loose cannon — and then released unharmed. Her confiscated driver’s license has divulged that she happens to live, worst luck, in the robbers’ very neighborhood. Obviously she will have to be either snuffed, the loose cannon’s vote, or else developed as an inside source of information in the ongoing investigation, just the job for a sensitive felon.
Rebecca Hall, well and warmly remembered from Vicky Cristina Barcelona and more recently Please Give, probably sits at somewhere around the ninety-fifth percentile of feminine beauty, but by the lights of the movie world she’s a Plain Jane, so her managerial character may be freely presupposed to have no friends, male or female, no life of her own outside of solitary and thankless volunteer work at the Community Garden and at the Boys and Girls Club, easy pickings for a casual pickup at the laundromat.
This situation, if not terribly plausible as a basis for a serious relationship, not terribly plausible even as a quirk of fate, is nevertheless eminently playable: intimate communication conducted on uneven levels of understanding. “I’m sure I’d recognize their voices if I heard them again,” she confides straight to the face that had been covered up during the caper, together with those of his three accomplices, by a death’s-head mask, floor-mop wig, and black hood, a get-up that could be pretty scary if you don’t stop to wonder why you never see in a movie a scene of bank robbers, in the planning stages, shopping at Wal-Mart and debating their options to go as Batman, the Joker, or Barack Obama. If you do take time to wonder, it’s apt to seem rather silly than scary. (For a later job, the choice will be prune-faced nuns.) These might be blue-collar bandits, but any criminal mastermind of cinematic mettle will want to express himself beyond the basic ski mask.
Under Mr. Sensitive’s sensitive probing, the eyewitness lets slip that she had timidly withheld from the investigators her observation of the distinctive tattoo on the neck of the loose cannon. That would present a dilemma if his oldest best friend, the cannon, meant as much to him as his newest best friend, the do-gooder. And when the FBI soon identifies the robbers by other means, it would have presented a worse dilemma — as well as an irony — had any of the robbers bothered to ask themselves how they got fingered. It never arises. Despite the heightened scrutiny on the robbery team, however, the feds are slow to notice that their key suspect is keeping company with their key witness. Slow but sure. Imagine, if you can, her surprise, her disillusion, her revulsion, when they finally share their findings with her. And then think again.
Even viewers who have managed to remain morally alive and kicking can be grateful for a crime thriller grounded in gritty reality; grateful at the abstinence from music-video visuals, explosions, martial arts, superheroes and archvillains; grateful enough to put up stoically with such standard usages as the raw rough grainy image (for grittier reality), the chopping off of the tops of heads at the tops of frames (for closer closeups), and the jittery jumpy jostled camera (for peak action); grateful enough not to squirm overmuch at the protracted car chase or the climactic full-scale warfare at the Boston “cathedral,” Fenway Park. They can follow along through all of that in a half-hooked, half-wriggling kind of way, until, at last, they fully realize where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie, and more than just sympathies, his sentimentalities, his laxities, his, well, insensitivities. ■