Ben Affleck directs, and plays the leading character, Doug MacRay, a native Bostonian, specifically from the neighborhood of Charlestown, which boasts more bank robbers per capita than any place in the nation. It’s a blue-collar, “townie” kind of neighborhood, the sort of urban insularity where outsiders are immediately recognized and greeted with suspicion. There have been shady dealings in this place for generations, and just because a man owns a bar, or even a flower shop, doesn’t mean he isn’t a thug. The women are hard-edged, too: tough, street-smart, wise-cracking, even trash-talking. Attitude, yes. Naïveté, no.
MacRay grew up here, and has lived here all his life, except for the brief time when he was pursuing a professional hockey career. He threw it away because he wasn’t used to keeping anybody else’s rules — or at least that’s what he thought about himself. Little did he know that he’s been somebody else’s lackey for a long time; he just didn’t realize the trap. His best buddy is James (Jeremy Renner, who delivers yet another outstanding performance), who took a rap for him, and did some hard time, now a “made” man and enjoying whatever mayhem comes his way. They have a couple of other old buddies, too, who don’t mind at all being in on the band of thieves, because none of them have families and none of them can really imagine doing anything else with their lives than being bad boys with their old buddies.
But this latest robbery has affected Doug in an unusual way. The bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), whom they took as a hostage in the getaway car, blindfolded, and then released, exhibits a brave vulnerability that moves something in Doug. He hasn’t been around too many classy ladies, who are well-educated, and garden, and drive a Prius, and talk about their feelings, and smile shyly, and carry a certain noble reserve in their manner. He’s smitten with Claire, and keeps his dirty little secret from her, that he was actually one of the nun’s-mask bandits who terrorized her. He manages to “meet” her in a laundromat. They start dating. He begins to think about his life entirely differently than he ever has.
Yes, he wants to repent, to turn his life around, to go straight, move away, start anew, and actually be in a significant, loving relationship. But his old neighborhood ties turn out to be more entangling than he knew. His buddies don’t want to lose him, of course, but the guy who gives them their information, and takes a cut of the proceeds, of course, doesn’t want to lose his favorite minion, either. Yeah, Doug knows too much. Can he really just walk away from all this, and they’ll allow him that? In the name of love?
We figure that this is all going to get ugly, and turn sour, and it does. An FBI agent named Frawley (Jon Hamm) has finally put together some pieces, and figured out that these jobs had to have guys who knew the inner working of the utility company, and then he found out which employee happened to call in sick during every one of the recent robberies. You find him, you find his friends. And shaking them down only makes them more determined to let you know they can still do what they want, and you can’t stop them. Not unless you’re playing for keeps.
“The Town” is a rough-hewn love story, with harsh accents and gutter language and casual violence and the sort of utter amorality that takes your breath away. And yet, can a leopard change his spots? Can the brute find gentleness? How hard is it to truly turn your life around? Or someone else’s?
RONALD P SALFEN is pastor, Grace Church, Greenville, Texas