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Directed by Ben Affleck and based on the book Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, The Town tells the story of a Boston neighborhood where a long line of bank robbers have made their trade and lived in anonymity. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, one of four life-long friends who have formed a tight-knit group of robbers. Of the four, Jem (Jeremy Renner) is the most unstable and violent. On their latest heist, they are forced to kidnap the manager, a woman named Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and take her hostage, though a short time later, letting her go unharmed, never revealing who they are. MacRay learns that Claire lives in the neighborhood and takes it upon himself to follow her and learn what she’s said to the police about her captors. It’s not long before he is emotionally involved with her and they begin dating, though Doug doesn’t tell the others. As he keeps this secret, Doug sees a chance to get out of the business and leave town but is roped into another big heist by a local mob boss.
Affleck’s second major picture as director continues to show the talent he has behind the camera. Well-paced and with several superbly executed action pieces, The Town is also a gripping drama with some very authentic performances, especially Renner, whose Jem is a powder keg of suspense. Hampered slightly by unnecessarily long car chases and a shootouts that strip a bit of the great character-driven intrigue, The Town is a well-produced thriller that delivers.
Doug and Claire grow close fast, mostly because of their honesty. He ostensibly is with her only to find out if she’s talked with the FBI but his feelings for her are genuine. Her confesses a lot about his life and past to her and his ambitions to find his long-lost mother. He is also keeping her a secret since the gang knows who she is. One day, Claire tells Doug that in the chaos of the bank robbery, she saw a tattoo on the back of the neck of one of the men who took her hostage. That tattoo belongs to Jem, and now Doug realizes that she can identify the robbers. Not long after, he meets Claire at an outdoor cafe and as he sits outside waiting for her to come to their table, Jem suddenly approaches, his neck fully exposed. He is decidedly shocked to see Claire join but plays into well, quickly realizing what is happening. The three sit and Jem talks with Claire while Doug breathlessly watches and waits, panic in his eyes. Jem eventually dismisses himself and moves on, leaving Doug with a subtle verbal hint of distrust.
This is why The Town works so well, the explosive dynamic between well-developed characters. Jem is highly unstable and put into this mix, making it unclear for both Doug and the audience about what will happen. What we know and what Claire doesn’t makes the moment especially powerful. Doug keeps his eyes on the tattoo, as do we, while Jem, not knowing that she has seen it before, seems just one quick turn away from revealing it. The tension builds with the sharp dialogue. Jem understands that Doug hasn’t told her about the gang, but he wants to be sure what is happing and even though he knows precisely who she is, inquires about her job and then the robbery itself. Claire, unaware that Jem is one of the men who held her hostage politely obliges. Jem then lets Doug know he’s not happy at what he thinks is a betrayal by telling Claire she shouldn’t get to comfortable with Doug. He’s a hard worker, always bringing his work home with him.
It is here where we get a sense of the real malice in Jem, the bitterness and quick temper, but also his restraint. This moment is all about him and Affleck wisely lets that be so, keeping Jem front and center with he and Claire pushed off to the side as if repelled by his emanating power. The tattoo itself keeps popping up, reminding us of how close it is to being seen, and the possibility of what might happen if it does. In fact, so dominate is the threat of the tattoo, we hardly get a sense of what they are talking about as the momentum is all about keeping eyes off Jem’s neck while the camera teases otherwise. Renner is riveting, like a plucked guitar string, trembling with vibration, absolutely controlling every last syllable of the moment. Three people sitting at a cafe table hold as much suspense and tension (if not more) than any of the heist or gun fights in the film. That is great filmmaking.
Peter Craig (screenplay), Ben Affleck (screenplay)
Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm