Oscar Profile: The Town
by Tom Ingram
Crime fiction that focuses on the criminals walks a thin line: it has to convince us to empathize with main characters who are very bad guys. This is a sticky problem, but good writers have found ways around it. We can still feel some measure of respect toward the dashing thief or crafty con man if he’s coerced in some way, or his victims really deserve it. Even horrendous crimes like driving a monster truck through a maternity ward can be excused if you make the criminal particularly stylish or sexy.
I’ve seen all of those plenty of times, but The Town takes a unique approach. Never before has a movie just dodged the issue entirely.
The Town is about a group of bank robbers who grew up in Charlestown, a tough neighbourhood of Boston. After a job in which one of them, Jimmy Coughlin, beats the manager in the head with the butt of his rifle, they take the assistant manager hostage in case the police give chase.
They eventually let her go, holding onto her driver’s license just in case. When they get home to unload the money, they check the address on the license and discover that Claire, the assistant manager, lives in Charlestown, only a few blocks from them. Doug Macray, the more reasonable bank robber, decides to follow her to make sure she isn’t talking to the cops.
Claire doesn’t recognize him without the rubber mask and gun, and the two of them fall in love. However, between the protests of Doug’s friends and the vigorous FBI investigation of the four robbers, the relationship is somewhat strained.
Doug’s team carries out three robberies in the course of the movie, killing one guard and an untold number of cops*. To his credit, Doug tries to get out of the business before the last robbery. He only goes ahead with it because Pete Postlethwaite’s Irish mob boss threatens to castrate him**. Still, that leaves two robberies and several attendant crimes perpetrated during the movie just because Doug wanted a bit of dosh.
The villain is the head of the FBI investigation, who certainly is a bit of a dink, but keep in mind that he is an agent of the law attempting to capture a gang of violent and dangerous criminals. The Town seems to forget that killing and stealing are not all right, and killing for the purpose of stealing is even less so. It presents the justice system working exactly the way it’s supposed to as some kind of tragedy. Bafflingly, the overwhelming message of this movie is that robbing banks is not just excusable, but morally praiseworthy.
Jeremy Renner has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Jimmy Coughlin. That was a good performance, one of the few good things to come out of this mess. He’s an axe crazy mass murderer just waiting to burst. His violence in the bank robbery at the beggining is terrifying to watch.
That said, I’m still thinking Geoffrey Rush should get this one.
* Not to mention the bank manager. The moviemakers don’t seem to realize just how dangerous pistolwhipping is. Both the criminals and the FBI beat people quite brutally with their weapons on several occasions. [return]
** Oddly enough, not the first time I’ve seen him do that in a movie. [return]