Movies: The Town ****
In Gone Baby Gone Ben Affleck, whom we already knew was no dummy, revealed a flair for direction, and with The Town, I believe he's gone one better.
Although an argument could be made that this film's themes are less harrowing than Gone Baby Gone's and that its ambitions are more mainstream, I think The Town is a more coherent and complete piece of work, a lean, mean and extremely efficient thriller.
The film with which it begs comparison is Michael Mann's Heat: both are essentially heist movies and have protagonists who suffer crises of conscience and adhere to their own strict moral code.
But while Affleck's film is certainly less preoccupied with innovations of visual style than Mann's, it digs deeper into its characters and may ultimately tell a more satisfying story.
Like all Affleck's best work to date, The Town is set in Boston, specifically the old Irish neighbourhood of Charlestown, which, as an opening voiceover explains, has always produced more than its fair share of bank robbers.
Charlestown practically has a guild of bank robbers, and if it did Doug McRay (Affleck) would be one of its most distinguished members. He is the leader of a group of ruthlessly efficient young criminals who, as the story begins, launch a lightning raid on a bank in downtown Boston.
Although Doug's partner Jem Coughlin (played by the excellent Jeremy Renner) does get a little over-zealous with his pistol-whipping, everything otherwise goes according to plan, and when the gang are leaving they bring a female member of staff with them as a hostage.
Claire (Rebecca Hall) is later released unharmed on a nearby beach, but afterwards Doug and Jem begin to worry that she might be able to identify them. Jem is all for resolving their anxieties forthwith by killing her, but Doug dissuades him and tells him he'll investigate further himself.
After tailing Claire for several days, he engineers a meeting at her local laundromat and, in the process of ascertaining that she doesn't know that much, he begins to fall in love with her. The feeling is mutual, but Claire has no idea who Doug really is and he doesn't know whether or not to tell her.
Meanwhile, a dogged FBI agent called Frawley (Mad Men's John Hamm) is determined to catch the gang, and is convinced Claire knows more than she's letting on. And to further complicate things, a Charlestown gangster called Fergie the Florist (Pete Postlethwaite -- who else?) is putting pressure on Doug and Jem to take on another risky heist.
Clocking in at two hours exactly, The Town doesn't drag its heels for a second, and unlike Heat it never gets overly portentous or up itself thanks to a continuous strain of salty Boston humour. This even extends to the action scenes: in the second heist, the gang conduct a nerve-jangling high-speed escape dressed in nun costumes, which seem alternately sinister and funny.
The script, which Affleck wrote with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, is terse and lean, and Affleck's acting is better here than it's been in years. His Doug McRay is a potent mix of saint and sinner, a puzzling vacuum of a character who doesn't reveal his hand until the very last minute. John Hamm is excellent as the exasperated FBI man, and I found myself wishing he and Affleck had spent more time together on screen.
Renner, as the sociopathic but strangely honourable Jem, is as riveting as ever, Pete Postlethwaite is a satisfyingly seedy villain, and Chris Cooper makes a brief but potent appearance as Doug's jailbird dad. An honourable mention, too, for Gossip Girl's Blake Lively, who plays a desperate ex-girlfriend and single mother surprisingly well.
The Town is a tense, slick, fast-moving and deeply satisfying piece of entertainment, and I'll be surprised if a better Hollywood thriller appears this year.