Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Town; Or the return of Bubba Rogowski

A few years ago, Ben Affleck directed an adaptation of Denis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, and then had the misfortune to have it ready to release at just the wrong moment for releasing a film about child abduction. It was pretty well received, all the same, and along with Hollywoodland it was the beginning of Affleck's rehabilitation after a string of bad movies. The most distinctive thing about it was the way in which nothing looked prettied up; all the actors looked like those pictures of stars doing their shopping which are forever going up on the internet with astonished comments about how unremarkable and crappy they look when they haven't got their makeup on.

The Town is more of the same, and I don't mean that in a bad way; once again Affleck has gone out of his way to make South Boston look as naturalistic as he can, and it's to the film's benefit. Mind you, no amount of dialling down the makeup can do anything about Affleck's cheekbones or Jon Hamm's ridiculous levels of coolness, but somehow the movie struggles on despite these intrusive notes of glamour.

It's a strong little movie which lives and dies on the performances. With Gone Baby Gone, it was almost surprising how many people Ben Affleck had been able to talk into working with his kid brother in a deeply depressing detective movie. When that worked out, it automatically became a lot less surprising when he could get a good cast for the Town, but what's surprising is that he was able to get Victor Garber for what amounts to a non-speaking part; Garber gets about four words before being clubbed unconscious, and I spent the rest of the film wondering when we'd see the rest of him; nope, that was it. There's quite a bit of that; Chris Cooper's there as Affleck's dad, and they have one scene together which is just as good as you'd expect, but it doesn't really get anything done which needs to be done.

Anyhow, Affleck's the weakest link in some ways, which is hardly surprising with him trying to carry the lead AND direct the movie. It makes what I think was supposed to be a very detached character a little bit more detached than Affleck probably wanted. But it's fine, it just about works, and if he hadn't been up against Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner it might not even have been noticeable. Sadly Hamm steals all the scenes he's in, no matter who else is there, and Jeremy Renner isn't far behind. Renner is one of those actors who does a very good job of portraying half-smart guys who are up for anything exciting - without him, The Hurt Locker would have been nothing like as good. In this movie, his whole character can be distilled down to one moment when Affleck tells him that he needs Renner to come with him to do a job of hurting people and that he can't ask why. Renner's reply: "Whose car we taking?".

The main plot of the Town is Affleck and three friends robbing banks, while Jon Hamm's FBI task force tries to catch them. It's like a very very low intensity version of Heat. It has several advantages over Heat, in that it's shorter and it isn't taking itself so damned seriously, and it isn't trying to pack in quite so many things. The Town is cheap and simple; boy robs bank, boy meets girl, boy tries to quit the life of crime, can't and loses girl. How well a thing like that will work will depend on whether you buy the romance and whether you buy the tension between the life Affleck is trying to leave behind and the life he wants. I'm still not sure about the romance, but the pressures keeping him in the life of crime are sketched in well, and overall, the emotional arc for Affleck felt right. There's a wonderful pay off moment as the film draws to a close and Affleck is on the run and reaching out by phone one last time to the girl. He knows that the FBI are with her as he phones her, and that she's going to try to get him to come to a trap, but still he wants to say goodbye. And as the conversation draws to a close, she manages to slip a warning into the conversation without tipping her hand to the feds, and Affleck gets to walk away knowing that there was still something left between them. it oughtn't to be as cheering as it was, but it was a great little moment.

That said, the actual career of crime doesn't make enough sense. The Affleck gang (as Hamm wittily calls them, the Not-F***ing Around Crew) are incredibly professional and well prepared, and from what we see of the way Affleck does things (his final escape is a miracle of lateral thinking; the feds are watching all the bus and train stations, so make your escape as a bus DRIVER) it's clear that he's a good planner and thinks through the details. Yet the FBI gets on to the crew because they realise that the crew is just too good with their technical defeats of alarm systems; the only way they could be that good would be if they had a guy working in the phone company. And just like that, they identify the guy in the phone company by finding someone with a pattern of days off which matches the pattern of the robberies they're investigating. Because the phone company has to keep records of these things. And Ben Affleck won't have thought of this, and made sure the records aren't accurate? Particularly when he's got a guy on the inside who's good with computers? No, that don't work for me.

That's my only quibble, mind you. It's a well put together piece of work which is actually pretty slow in the middle and works all the better because of it. The final heist goes completely wrong, as they inevitably do, and unfolds in a rather stereotypical way, but it's done well, and it's done with people you've begun to take an interest in, so it works, and the aftermath is very solid.

So, who's Bubba Rogowski? Bubba was a character in Gone Baby Gone, a very good piece of casting for one of the less annoying criminal buddy characters of crime fiction. Affleck brought back the same actor as the driver for Affleck's crew, and it was good to see him again. The actor calls himself Slaine, which is annoying, but he's a big heavyset babyfaced guy who was just perfect as Bubba, who has the moral development of a four year old, and he's pretty good here as a slightly less sociopathic version of the same kind of couldn't-give-a-crap-about-anyone-but-my-buddies kind of guy.

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