“The Town” tells the story of four childhood friends who have grown up to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Unfortunately, those footsteps have led in most cases to prison or death. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, we are told, “Bank robbery is passed down from fathers to sons like a family business.”
The film opens in the middle of a well organized bank heist. The robbers, dressed in Halloween masks and toting AK-47s, sail through the bank with speed and confidence, disabling cell phones and computers as they head for the vault, where they coolly check for dye tags and take only the clean stuff. When one quick-thinking employee sets off the silent alarm, they decide to take the pretty young bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), as a hostage.
Most of the gang members are typical thugs, but Doug (Ben Affleck) is the robber with the heart of gold who wants to break away but can’t leave his friends. After they let Claire go (unharmed), Doug decides to track her down, ostensibly to find out what she might have told the FBI, but also to see how she’s coping with the ordeal. He ends up falling for this pretty girl from the other side of town, despite the fact that he is already in a relationship with a local girl (Blake Lively), the sister of his best friend and partner, Jim (Jeremy Renner). Claire represents the life Doug might have had if he hadn’t grown up in the projects of Boston. He is torn between loyalty to his pals and a desire for a different life.
The film has plenty of excitement, with a thrilling car chase down narrow Boston alleyways, and a shootout at Fenway Park. The robbers are cool, their plans are smart, and one of them has an itchy trigger finger that can get them all the death penalty if his bullets hit home. We especially feel sympathy for Doug, a good guy growing up in a bad situation.
The film doesn’t praise or glorify crime so much as it attempts to explain it. Life doesn’t provide white picket fences for kids in the projects. Parents often end up dead or in prison, or they just walk away. Children learn to keep their eyes open and their mouths shut. They create their own code of right and wrong, with loyalty to friends at the top of the list.
The relationship between Doug and Jim, whose family took Doug in when his father went to prison, is best portrayed when Doug comes to Jim with a special request. Angry at some hoodlums who have been hassling Claire, Doug says to him, “I gotta ask ya to do something. I can’t tell ya why. We gotta hurt somebody.” Jim replies without question, “Let’s go.”
What happened in Charlestown? Why is it such a bastion of bank robbers and auto thieves? The film offers several reasons. As the FBI agents begin to close in on the robbers, Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) comments dryly, “We won’t get 24-hour surveillance unless one of these guys converts to Islam,” suggesting that Homeland Security diverts funds away from hometown security. But it’s more than that. In another telling scene, when the gang has outrun several police cars and crossed the bridge from Boston to Charlestown, they suddenly come eye to eye with a local policeman. He stares at them, and they stare at him. They’re caught. Then the cop deliberately turns his head and looks the other way. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys when they all grow up together.
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, the film is more than a typical bank heist flick; it is Ben Affleck’s love letter to a town he adores. He grew up in the neighborhood of Boston, and he knows her seedy side as well as her beauty. He knows her accents and her moods, and he knows how to charm her into giving him exactly what he wants. Affleck’s acting career has had its ups and downs, but Boston is clearly his lucky charm. He earned an Oscar (with Matt Damon) for the screenplay of “Good Will Hunting” (1997), set in Cambridge, where the two actors grew up. His directorial debut, “Gone, Baby, Gone” (2007), also set in Boston’s seedy district, earned both critical accolades and box office success. “The Town” makes it a hat trick. Affleck is clearly back on top.