If all Ben Affleck ever accomplishes as a director is to make Boston-set, character-driven crime movies with an impeccable sense of place, he can walk away satisfied. He could probably already walk away satisfied after following up his riveting 2007 directorial debut Gone Baby Gone with The Town, a somewhat less impressive but still quite entertaining and occasionally poignant thriller about a group of working-class bank robbers from the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. This time around Affleck gives the lead role to himself, and he’s every bit as good as his brother Casey was in Gone Baby Gone.
Affleck plays Doug MacRay, who opens the movie by pulling off a well-orchestrated bank heist with his three accomplices, including childhood friend and possible psychopath Jim (Jeremy Renner). To ensure a clean getaway, the group abducts bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), later dropping her off unharmed. Spooked by attention from a dogged FBI agent (Jon Hamm), Doug and his crew decide to keep an eye on Claire, except Doug takes things a little further, flirting with Claire at a Laundromat and then starting up a relationship with her, all while keeping his identity a secret, since his entire crew was masked during the hold-up.
It’s a contrived set-up, sure, and The Town embraces all sorts of other heist-movie clichés, including the one final job, the deceptively dangerous older mastermind and the criminal who just wants to take himself out of the game. What makes the movie work isn’t so much the plotting as it is Affleck’s facility with character and setting. He makes Charlestown feel as real and lived-in as Dorchester did in Gone Baby Gone, and his entire ensemble brings humanity and depth to the hardscrabble characters (although Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively overdoes it a little as Doug’s strung-out ex).
Crucially, Affleck also builds suspense well, staging an excellent mid-film car chase and only overstaying his welcome slightly with a drawn-out, overly sentimental ending. There are a lot more criminals and a lot more neighborhoods in Boston, and we should look forward to Affleck’s continued explorations of both.