Five brief thoughts on a
Everyone – read – everyone enjoyed Argo (here’s the proof). It was an old fashioned, stripped down sort of film that reminded us that, yes, when people are out to get your characters, you can make the audience feel the tension in their bones. Argo was Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature so I thought I’d look back on one of his other films to see whether his name is beginning to be a mark of quality.
1) My focus is on the direction, so let’s start by saying it’s a hit. Between Argo and this film there is no doubt that one of the things Affleck understands best is pacing. This film is another tension soaked heist drama so at times it needs to clip along, showing us with quick cuts the rapidly changing crime scenes (the initial scene where the perspective flits between those of the robbers and of Rebecca Hall‘s character works excellently). At other times, the camera lingers, allowing characters in moments of calm the time to come to life. One particular scene where Jeremy Renner‘s character Jem walks into a bar and takes a seat next to Affleck takes the time to allow Renner to show his cocky walk and slouch which tells us a lot about the menace of the character before he even opens his mouth. Renner is excellent throughout as Jem and Affleck gives him the time and space to do it.
2) Now on to the movie as a whole, it’s unfortunately somewhere in the middle. It’s a perfectly fine movie but not particularly compelling or memorable. At times, it’s trying to be a bit of everything all at once. Affleck is your typical “good guy” bad guy looking for a way out of the business but the plot doesn’t really get around to that. His relationship with Renner’s Jem is a sort of love-hate relationship which could end up with either guy hugging or killing each other but again, the plot doesn’t really come around to that. Affleck’s romance with Hall is a kind of impossible cross-class ruined romance between an innocent and a craven man (something akin to Drive actually). The best scene in the film by far hints at a convergence of some of these plots when Renner crashes a date between Hall and Affleck. However, all three of these possible plots play back seat to the fact that this is a simple film about a bunch of robbers who take on once too many jobs and get nabbed by the cops. The possible early complexity of the plot ends up with something startlingly simple and linear, which is essentially just forgettable. It’s fun as a B-level crime movie but never threatens to be much more than that.
Yes, exactly. It’s hard to know how to feel about the characters in The Town. I guess how you react probably says a lot about you – a kind of dramatic psychometric test. Here’s my perspective. The key thing about the greatest films about gangsters (shorthand for Goodfellas plus a few others) is that you don’t so much empathise with the characters in that you want them to win and continue doing criminal violence upon fools but you watch their travails with a sense of understanding of their underlying humanity. You might even want them to get caught but you understand basically that their life has tragedy and that we as humans can understand that tragedy even in someone we would never wish to meet. When you start to try and make really bad guys actually likeable, the genre doesn’t really work (Football Factory has this problem).
The Town kind of wants to have its cake and eat it too. The film goes at such great lengths to make the Affleck character likeable (it’s re-iterated again and again and again that he never killed anyone, and tries to avoid this) and to make you care about the outcome of his romance with goody-two-shoes Claire (Hall). But the trouble is that whilst Affleck effects sympathy, his character just isn’t likeable. His character hangs around with the worst and most violent people and carries a gun into a robbery where he knows that if things go wrong, he’s going to have to start shooting people (at no point is it suggested he will ever go down peacefully). It’s hard to think of the Renner character as a thug but somehow give the Affleck character some kind of pass (especially considering his pretty shitty treatment of Jem’s sister). It feels like the film is pushing you to care about this guy but as a viewer I just wanted to push back. Affleck’s escape at the end of the film to glorious Florida was supposed to feel like a release (so very different to the flat, real-world ending of Goodfellas) but we really hadn’t been given any reason to care about this guy who has been killing cops for the past twenty minutes (presumably).
It doesn’t work because…..
4) ……the film isn’t a shades of grey piece in terms of morality. Jon Hamm‘s FBI agent is consistently showed as a straight law enforcer who is morally uncorrupted and really driven to arrest Affleck’s gang not out of some kind of power trip but because it’s his job and because Renner’s Jem shot and hospitalised a perfectly innocent security guard halfway through the film. For any kind of sympathy with Affleck to work, the cops have to be faceless, cruel or crooked and they just aren’t. Hamm’s character is witty, entertaining and even when Affleck’s character outdoes him, he always comes back with a clever one-liner (in the interview room, with the note on the car). The film is trying to make this guy look good…..so why is he a minor character? Compared to a very similar kind of movie – Public Enemies – the FBI’s Purvis and John Dillinger are treated as equal protagonists. Not so in this film where it’s unclear if Hamm has any kind of relationship or home life. Hall’s Claire seems to dislike Hamm’s FBI agent right from the start but it’s really just a trick of circumstance as she really has every reason to cooperate with him (her colleague was badly beaten by Jem, Affleck’s Doug lies to her and she does actually seem to care whether or not people are getting killed, which they are). For the perspective to be skewed so strongly towards Affleck’s character there has to be some kind of justification and the film doesn’t really give any. Like in so many films, we seem to be following the character who is played by the most famous actor, not the character who is actually driving the conclusion of the film.
5) There’s one more problem. All the criminals in this film are really, really dumb. Yes, they go out of their way to protect their identities (going so far as collecting their cut hair from the barbers) but the series of decisions made just don’t add up. The crew rob a bank and for no reason take a hostage, even though they don’t need one. The hostage actually lives near them so Affleck follows her. He then just forgets his mission and starts dating her like a lovestruck fool, but lying to her about pretty much every aspect of his life (the master planner suddenly struck by short-termism). He knows that if she sees Jem up close she will identify him and that if Jem continues to examine their relationship, that Jem will probably kill Claire. Faced with this problem situation, they decide not to lie low and fix the problem but to go on another risky heist, during which they shoot a lot of people. Claire then discovers Affleck’s real identity. Then the criminals (including Pete Postlethwaite, who is excellent) decide that the only solution to the problem is not to lie low but to do one more high profile heist in a sports stadium dressed as cops. At any time, just lying low for a few weeks would have pretty much solved their problems. So would moving around. Affleck could have taken Claire and just run away (it’s unlikely that Postlewaite would bother to hunt him down and as Affleck’s jailed father is already being tormented in prison, it’s hard to believe that he would be more tormented). These people are basically idiots who will keep doing risky heists until they get caught – suicide by cop. They are so repetitively dumb that even Hamm’s FBI agent calls them stupid….and he’s right. Every time something goes wrong that threatens to expose them, they don’t address the issue but plan a robbery for the following week with higher stakes. In Public Enemies, Dillinger keeps crossing state lines with no national FBI to stop him. In The Town, they basically drive across town and rob a new place every single week, even when they know the FBI is watching them and even when they know Hall as a witness could put them all away. The whole emotional issue of why I should care about Affleck’s cronies pales into comparison when facing the stupidity issue – Why I am I watching these morons fuck up? To sum up – Smart people made a good film about dumb people….and it’s not a comedy.