In the midst of the last-act shootout in the garage of the “cathedral of Boston,” Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), the leader of a team of bank and armored truck robbers, looks out among the horde of police and zeroes his gaze upon Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), the leader of the FBI division who has unleashed these cops upon MacRay and his gang. The stare MacRay gives is not some generic display of anger or disappointment; it is a very specific sense of frustration — at this man, what he has done, and what he represents — that wordlessly calls out, “Why are you doing this to me?”

The Town has the general framework of a cops and robbers yarn that could take place anywhere, yet it is a very individualized story about a particular place and set of people that could not occur anywhere else. The place is the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. The people are those who live and breathe that community, which has a distinction of infamy in producing an exorbitant number of bank robbers.

Robbing banks and armored trucks is a way of life for MacRay and his gang. They do not seem to do it for the possibility of wealth. We only see MacRay buy an expensive necklace, but otherwise, they live in modesty. MacRay has a daily grind at a rock quarry, which he, theoretically, does not need. Crime here is a means with no end.

So why do they do it? The film has no easy answers but simple, fundamental ones. They are thieves because that is what they are. From their perspective, there is no shame in it. Their fathers did work like this for the same people they do now. It put food on the table and, as long as they kept in line with the man in charge and planned and played smartly, kept them safe. MacRay steals from banks for the same reason he breaks rocks every day: It is his job, and a man’s job is his duty.

MacRay and James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) know a lot about this. They have been involved in some criminal activity or another for a long time. MacRay’s father (Chris Cooper) went to jail for murder when MacRay was young, and has lived with the Coughlins since then. The two are like brothers, and James is convinced MacRay is the father of his sister Krista’s (Blake Lively) daughter.

They, along with the other two in their crew (Slaine and Owen Burke), have just done another job, where they had to take the bank’s assistant manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), hostage. They wore masks or blindfolded her when they did not, but Coughlin, who is one conviction away from his third strike, wants to make sure she didn’t see anything that could give them away.

MacRay wants to be certain as well. He is a recovering addict looking for a new lease on life. A jail sentence would be the opposite. There might be an ulterior, non-business motive from the start, too, but whatever the initial reasons, he follows Claire, fakes a chance meeting, and asks her out for a drink.

Their date is a strategic manipulation, the first of many from more characters than just MacRay. He lets her open up about the robbery, and then the questions start, drenched in dramatic irony. It’s amazing how much someone will open up to another person they sense they can trust (whether he hoped for it from the start or not, their relationship does become romantic and with time and consideration), and MacRay operates on that assumption. Before planning a job, he does background research on the guards who’ll be driving the armored trucks they hit. How much are they paid? Are they willing to risk their lives for ten bucks an hour? Do they have family? Will they open a locked door if MacRay says there’s a person outside their home?

It’s a kind of psychological extortion at which they excel, and MacRay and his gang are not the only ones. Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), with an old country brogue, is both a local florist and the head of the robbery ring. He only has a few but vital scenes, most importantly one in which McRay tries to sit out on a job with which he isn’t comfortable. The power shift and the way it changes are key, with MacRay talking reasonably and Colm turning the tables with a threat against Claire and the revelation of a defining moment of MacRay’s past. The added twist of the knife to the stab of the disclosure is that Colm laughed at him then and is still laughing now.

Frawley works in a similar way. In addition to revealing backstory on MacRay, Coughlin, and the others through a briefing scene that identifies trends (broken homes from dead or delinquent parents, violent pasts, or professional failures, like MacRay’s attempt to enter professional hockey), Frawley is also a master manipulator. Lying, coercing, and threatening, it is perhaps not a mere coincidence that the film’s final heist has MacRay and Coughlin disguised as law enforcement. Frawley himself is fascinating in his philosophy on crime. He considers and lists the properties of a twenty dollar bill — about six inches long and weighing a gram. It is, by his estimation, not even worth its weight in prescription opiates. Even so, in no hollow warning, he tells MacRay, who is at the top of his list of suspects with no evidence to confirm or deny, it is no longer about sending them to jail.

Details that speak volumes about the characters and how they tie together on a level beyond simple plot information are abundant in the screenplay by Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard (based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan). In their one scene together, MacRay and his father say very little and in code, yet the scene implies a vast, painful history. Coughlin is reckless with nothing to lose, we and MacRay believe in spite of his two-strike record, yet with one, perfectly chosen turn of phrase, he reveals it is because of the prospect of prison. If something goes wrong, he confides to MacRay, he will “hold court in the street.”

Affleck, who also directs, is less concerned with the hows (money is “cleaned” through casinos and strip clubs, blueprints are looked over, and the police question and investigate) than with the whys. There are a few conventional sequences, the opening robbery, a car chase, and the final job, but there is genuine weight to them. The car chase, especially, makes exceptional use of geography (narrow, cramped streets) and is paced in a way for tension (a race to the Charlestown bridge) and character development (cornered, MacRay has one of two, defining choices: Give up or shoot).

Assured, intricate, and wise, The Town is Affleck’s second feature behind the camera. With another genre film, he again displays his devotion to characterization, his ability to garner precise performances from his cast, and a notable willingness to tread the hazy terrain of perceptions of morality against reality.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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