On the surface, The Town could be summarized as: “Good Will Hunting with guns.” A rough neighborhood genius struggles with identity, destiny, and desire for a girl out of his league. Only instead of solving math problems on hallway chalkboards, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), plans bank robberies.
While committing one, he abducts bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, a pastier version of Jennifer Garner), then, a plot twist later, falls in love with her despite the fact that her character doesn’t do much beyond looking vulnerable and teary.
The lying lover is not the only familiar plot device. Reduced to labels on Freytag’s Pyramid, The Town would look like a hundred other movies.
Except, the car chase through Boston’s North End is actually tense. Though this may be because I’ve walked along a couple of those streets near Christ Church. One car going five miles an hour is scary, let alone an SUV driven by Slaine and pursued by Boston PD.
Except, Adam Frawley, the requisite FBI agent (Don Draper, I mean uh, Jon Hamm), sounds like an over-zealous idiot every time he delivers a tough-cop line. The sheer excess he’s willing to commit in order to catch MacRay’s gang calls into question the values of authority. What is he protecting? Not life, limb, or happiness, but money, money, money.
Adrian McKinty posted recently about popular fiction’s, “patronising take on blue collar life.” My recent observations support his thesis. Generally, poor characters have two options. Option A: Be “good,” and await rescue from someone middle class or above, so money’s makeover will solve all your problems. Option B: be a “bad,” stupid, depraved, coward (played for easy vilification or for humor).
Which brings us to the motivation for MacRay and his friends. It’s not the money– they have plenty of it, and they’re not trying to escape their economic environment.
Guilt, love, and prestige all factor into the equation, but the characters’ real driving force is their sense of professionalism. They know their shit, from FBI antennas, to which guards are least likely to make trouble. MacRay doesn’t sweat when Frawley sweats him, and dear doomed Jimmy (Jeremy Renner) makes the FBI agent look ridiculous chasing him around a Boston PD car.
The way MacRay’s sobriety isolates him from his peers–even before he talks about leaving “the ‘Town,” his cold rejection Krista and her (his?) child–leaving them to wander the rocks just like Stephen left his sisters in Ulysses, and the accusation from Jimmy, that MacRay thinks he’s better than everyone else, all ring real to me.
It suggests that sure, Affleck’s a millionaire now, but either he, or someone he was smart enough to listen to, understands the conflict for those of us who see the pathologies in both where we’re from, and where we’re supposed to want to be.
Even more telling, the film exposes middle-class obedience to authority, by taking for granted Clair’s betrayal of MacRay. Even Oxy-addicted Krista (Blake Lively) is smart enough to know when she’s being used by Frawley . Watching the film, I couldn’t quite decide if Claire’s hollow characterization was supposed to represent the empty promise of the American Dream, or if Affleck and Co. just didn’t bother.
Either way, I would have hated the movie if Claire and MacRay had lived happily-ever-after. In fact, I found MacRay’s Thoreau-style retreat to a state of nature arrogant and selfish, but I also recognized it as the character’s last best choice.
I loved The Town not because of it’s Charlestown authenticity (check out the Oxy-Morons Facebook page if you’re harboring those illusions), not because it is the perfect portrait of poverty’s frustrations (if there is any such thing, this isn’t it), and not because it’s an example of brilliant film-making (in spots, yes; in spots, um, no).
I loved it because it offers Option C.