October 26, 2014

This Week’s Popcorn

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‘The Town’ is the one without pity

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Unsettling via the ugly little, crime-absorbed world it unearths, director Ben Affleck’s “The Town” blends old style action-drama with a shock and awe rawness common to our times. While a part of you may wish that the distasteful sociology had remained under its slimy rock, your captivated half is sure to be rendered mouth agape and at seat’s edge.

Mr. Affleck, buzzed of late as only a fair actor, disproves the naysayers this go-round by pulling the triple threat — acting, writing and directing — with notable aplomb. He is Doug MacRay of the Charlestown, Boston, MacRays, a second generation robber of banks and armored cars. And of course, we’re meeting him at a turning point.

Oh yeah, even before we learn Doug’s sad but true story, we suspect this isn’t your ordinary mass of criminal DNA. Perhaps he was destined for better things. It’s this idealism, doubtlessly intertwined with a touch of our own optimistic sentiment, that sets up the moral quandary which hauntingly resides at the core of the turbulent tale.

The sticky situation is set in motion when Doug and his three partners in crime are forced to briefly take Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), a pretty bank executive, hostage during a job gone slightly awry. The complications are ineradicable, or at least they are if Doug isn’t actually a decent sort behind his bizarre array of bank robbing disguises.

In short, he wants to do the right thing. But that could compromise longtime buddy, cohort and inveterate loose cannon, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), which in turn prompts an ethical dilemma within the greater moral scheme. It gets even more involved as the storyline dusts off a creepy old romantic plot with a cat and mouse twist to it.

But wait … one more thing. Cannily exacted by Jon Hamm, FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley adds yet another wrinkle to the tension-filled treatise on right and wrong. True, he’s clean cut. And yes, he is in pursuit of the bad guys. Still, we can’t help note a nagging likeness between S.A. Frawley and Inspector Javert of “Les Miserables” infamy.

While these players and allegiances are being established, we are also bombarded by a cascade of overwhelming crime statistics. Of all the bank jobs and armored car heists in the United States, no place holds a candle to Charlestown’s numbers. It’s a local specialty. More dizzying, these desperadoes blatantly thumb their noses at Feds and Boston cops alike.

But while Affleck’s disparaging dissection of the culture steers clear of a justifying empathy for most of the lowlifes it showcases, there is an analogy here … one that recalls similarly themed films from the Great Depression. The tacit implication is that Judgment Day takes hard times into consideration, and allows for a sliding scale of scrutiny.

Added to the socioeconomic thrust, “The Town” is also about humankind’s perpetual petition for another turn around the block. And if seen solely in these terms, Mr. Affleck’s effort would be just so much warmed up cliché. Art, however, reserves a special place in its heart for first-class variations on a theme. And “The Town” fully qualifies.

Unlike the Scorsese style of full, environmental construction, Affleck makes do with a simple landscape of gritty, tough-talking denizens. Through their snapping diatribes and emotionally charged confessions, a character driven milieu materializes. If there’s a sun shining or kids laughing in Charlestown, no one pays notice. Sheer survival is uppermost.

It’s the sad result of everything that can go wrong when we are tossed into a poverty-stricken, urban environment perennially ruled by a cynical, demagogic power. Here, the nasty opportunist, superbly exacted by Pete Postlethwaite, is “Fergie” Colm, a mobster reeking of clan-evolved, might-makes-right despotism. Gosh, this is a terrible place.

Therefore, we charitably issue a nodding approval to the formula within the old saw, fully appreciating Doug MacRay’s desire to escape from the hell that is Charlestown. Problem is, if our bank robber is to achieve redemption, how can he sidestep customary, movie code punishment? Thus is added an introspective layer of anxiety to the doings.

There is uneasiness as we find ourselves rooting for the handsome thief and rationalize his right to grace. After all, no dispensation is sought for his average looking, unlikable cronies, especially Jeremy Renner’s hair-trigger Jimmy Coughlin. Expertly etched, he frighteningly reminds of Don Cheadle’s sociopath in “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995).

They are a disquieting bunch in a distressing saga, forcing us to check our calendars to see if we are indeed living in a modern, civilized society or just a chimera of it, where the law of the jungle still prevails. As action-packed as it is suspenseful and socially confounding, “The Town’s” dramatic demographics make for an alarming civics lesson.

“The Town,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Ben Affleck and stars Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm. Running time: 123 minutes.

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