Ben Affleck’s The Town – where it lost its way

by on October 23, 2010

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

The Town Movie Poster Ben Affleck

I wasn’t expecting a lot from Ben Affleck’s second feature but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a heist flick with smarts. However we’re prevented from feeling any great sense of release at the end of the film by a couple of fairly serious problems in the screenplay.

[SPOILER ALERT: I am going to reveal key details of the plot so, please, go see the film before proceeding. It's well worth watching and highly instructive for screenwriting students because it's good in parts and flawed in others.]

What did I like?

The concept isn’t bad. When a career criminal falls for the manager of a bank he robbed, he risks conviction and death trying to escape a life that won’t let go. There is juxtaposition. Clear Action and Relationship lines. High stakes. It’s an idea with a lot going for it.

The film makes good use of dramatic irony – (where we know more than the characters) – in the early exchanges between MacRay (Affleck) and the Bank Manager, Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and in the later scene where Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), with the incriminating tattoo on his neck, surprises the unlikely couple.

The set pieces and car chases create genuine tension. Renner is believable as a Charlestown skel, Pete Postlethwaite is pure evil as Fergie the Florist, and Jon Hamm is menacing and gets a lot of the film’s best lines as FBI Agent Frawley. In fact, there is a general intelligence that pervades this script and contributes enormously to the pleasure of the journey. If only it had taken us somewhere more satisfying, which brings me to …

What didn’t I like?

The start is a little clunky. Even Coughlin’s fellow gang members are surprised when he breaks with procedure and takes the bank manager hostage for no apparent reason.

There is dubious motivation again when they decide, after letting her go, “to keep an eye on her”. Huh? If you’re worried she’ll identify you, why not kill her? How is tailing her going to help exactly? What are you waiting to see? Whatever. The real motivation behind both of these first 2 plot points is not the character’s but the writer’s. He’s just trying to throw his 2 leads together. Fair enough. But it’s what happens next where the screenplay really begins to falter.

Career criminal, Doug McRay, whose father is currently in the pen for bank robbery, who labours at Boston Sand and Gravel and who’s grown up in one of Boston’s meanest suburbs, Charlestown, should be the chalk to Keesey’s elegant yuppie bank manager cheese but he’s not. He’s more like the Roquefort to her Gorgonzola.

This is partly down to the casting of Ben Affleck as McRay. While Renner looks suitably scuzzy as Coughlin and is almost unrecognisable from The Hurt Locker, Ben looks like what he is: a movie star. But the lack of sizzle between them isn’t helped by the script.

There just isn’t enough distance between these two characters. From their very first conversation at the laundromat, they get on like they’ve been paired by eHarmony.com. This not only defies credulity, it diminishes conflict and reduces what we can ultimately feel for this relationship. If it’s that easily acquired, why should we care if it’s lost?

Compare The Town with Witness, for example. Structurally, they’re quite similar. A crime in Act 1 throws together a Yin and Yang couple, which turns Act 2 into a romance, which will be threatened by the resolution of the crime in Act 3. Witness is one of the greatest films ever made because there is a gulf a couple of centuries wide between John Book (Harrison Ford) and Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis). The gap between MacRay and Keesey, by contrast, is an impatient New York minute.

But the major reservation I have with the screenplay is the ending.

MacRay, as the protagonist, should be active at the climax and he’s not. When they are hemmed in at Fenway Park and their cause seems irretrievably lost, it’s not MacRay whose enterprise and/or courage saves the day. It’s not even Coughlin, MacRay’s best friend and quasi-brother who engineers their escape but the rarely sighted Magloan. If we knew this guy from Adam and had come to care deeply about him, this could have been an Oates “I am just going outside and may be some time” sort of moment. But even if that had been a moving sacrifice, to earn his hero’s spurs MacRay would still have to confront and overcome his antagonist, and he doesn’t. Like an NFL running back, he just glides through the gap created by the blocking of Gloansy and Coughlin and swans off into the sunset. Sure, he then guns down Fergie, which makes us feel good but, since it doesn’t involve a demonstration of character, it doesn’t deliver any sense of catharsis.

Yet, a wonderful ending was within the film’s grasp.

We’d had that scene where Coughlin reveals that he’d done 9 years in the slammer because he’d killed a guy who was gunning for his best buddy, MacRay. That created a debt that should have made it very difficult for MacRay to leave.

And, later, when MacRay looks to be home free, he watches Frawley follow Coughlin, and you think, “Oh, how good is this?” He could get away but the debt he owes to Coughlin will oblige him to try to save his friend and in the process he’s going to get killed. This would have realised the premise that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, or some such. But no. He doesn’t save his friend. He just stands idly by – this is the protagonist we’re talking about here, folks – as the guy who saved his life is gunned down.

In taking that limp option, what does the film have to say? Not a whole lot. What is his sacrifice? That he’s not able to live with his loved one but he does get to lead a pretty idyllic life down in the bayou. Moved, anyone? No, I didn’t think so.

You wonder why they took that course. I haven’t read the novel upon which it’s based, Chuck Hogan’s The Prince of Thieves, but, in reading a few reviews online, several people say they felt let down by the ending so it’s likely the film is faithful to the book. It shouldn’t have been.

It’s interesting how many writers (and producers and studios) are afraid to kill off their heroes, yet it’s lily-livered, counter-productive folly. Would One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest have been half the film if McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) hadn’t died? Would we revere Dead Poets Society if Neil hadn’t wrapped his mouth around a Smith and Wesson? Would American History X have had anything to say if Danny hadn’t died by the sword brother Derek had forged? God spare us from endings dictated by focus group research.

The Town is smart, its action scenes are gripping and it takes us on a thrilling sprint – to mix my sports metaphors – all the way to third base. It just doesn’t bring us home. That’s a pity. Because with a stronger relationship and a ballsier ending, it might just have found itself among the great heist flicks.

When is my next 2-day screenwriting course?

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