The Town (2010) and The American (2010)

There are typically two kinds of films that fall into the category of “crime drama”. The first, the action-oriented thriller relies on momentum. The lead character is thrust into action, normally the result of some threat leveled against him or his loved ones by circumstances or forces beyond his control. The second kind is a rarer bird, the psychological crime drama, where plot and character are the focus rather than action, automatic weapons and car chases. Action-thrillers are more common these days because they adhere to certain formulaic consistencies that appeal to the typical contemporary film audience. Plot-and-character driven psychological crime dramas are not currently in vogue because they tend to be more complex and cerebral than mainstream here-we-are-now-entertain-us film audiences are willing to consider. Most critics prefer the first kind too - they're easier to write about.

Two excellent examples, one from each camp find coincidental release in December – Ben Affleck's Boston-set heist film The Town and Anton Corbijn's The American starring George Clooney. If you'll bear with me a few moments here, I'd like to break down some statistics for each film. Both were released theatrically in September 2010, The Town on 2861 screens and The American on 2823 screens. Affleck's film went on to gross $91M, received a 94% fresh rating on Rottentomatoes and a 7.9/10 rating on IMDb. The American grossed only $35M, despite starring the biggest actor on the planet, got tagged with a mediocre 65% RT score and scored a numbingly-average 6.7/10 on IMDb. By all empirical measures, one would assume The Town to be the better picture..... and they'd be wrong... sort of.

The American is an existential work of art. The Town is an well-crafted thriller. They may share the same “crime drama” label, but you'd be hard-pressed to find two more radically different treatments of the crime genre than these two.

The Town is Ben Affleck's second film as a director, his first being the excellent Gone Baby Gone from a couple of years ago. The Town is a nicely done film. Possibly because both started as actors, Affleck reigns from the Clint Eastwood school of directing. Like Eastwood, Affleck has a natural, craftsman-like feel for movie-making. His action scenes are well-staged, easy to follow and tight. The editing is clean and efficient, the camera focused and steady, long shots are there when called for and closeups only when necessary. Affleck's style is the polar-opposite of some like Paul Greengrass, of the epileptic-seizure school of filmmaking. For lack of a better term, Affleck is director in the classic style of Hollywood movie makers, and I mean that in a completely positive way.

As for the plot of The Town, it too is well-crafted. What it perhaps lacks in depth is more-than-made-up-for by some nicely drawn performances from a posse of A-list name-actors, among them.. Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Pete Postlethwaite, a cameo by Chris Cooper, Affleck himself in the lead and Rebecca Hall. Ben Affleck actually wore three hats in this production, sharing a screenwriting credit as well. I've got nothing but good things to say about The Town because it is a very good example of an old-school Hollywood crime thriller. People will like it because it adheres to the formula. It's the kind of film that presses the right audience buttons at the right times.

The American is an entirely different story... and in more ways than one. It's Jean-Pierre Melville to The Town's John Frankenheimer, Le Carre in place of Fleming, existential instead of visceral, Euro-flavoured as opposed to Affleck's Mom and Applematic-weapons Americana. It occupies headspace and not just the eyes and ears. It will bore 90% of the audience to sleep and enthrall the remaining 10%, who won't want it to end. It is a near-masterpiece of precise, controlled pacing and astute direction. Clooney has rarely been better and this might be the first role where his character isn't all that easy to like. He seems to enjoy these kinds of roles and has played variations on them in Syriana, Michael Clayton and to a lesser degree, again... in more ways than one, last year's shite-flight, Up in the Air.

This is also Anton Corbijn's second feature, his excellent debut being the 2007 film Control, about the lead singer of Joy Division. He's even better this time out. Corbijn imbues The American with a moody emptiness reminiscent of films like Antonioni's The Passenger. The score is sparse and haunting, the cinematography austere, crisp and minimalist. The film starts in Sweden and ends up in Castel del Monte in Italy, where most of the story is set. The setting is part of the film, almost a character in Corbijn's hands. It's as mysterious and dangerous as Clooney's impenetrable Mr. Butterfly, or Jack, or Edward or whatever the hell his name is.

What people won't like about this film is it doesn't follow the formula. Much remains unresolved and unexplained. Motivations, histories and reasons aren't spelled out in minute detail. In this way, it shares territory with last year's The Limits of Control, but without the frustration and slightness of story that marred Jarmusch's effort. Most will find the pacing of The American glacial. It's the kind of film that doesn't press any buttons, at least not in any obvious way. It's a movie that lingers in your mind, the way a Melville film might.

We received The Town today and The American releases on December 28th, so we'll hopefully have it by next week. When the inevitable recommendation question is asked over the holidays, push The Town and save The American for those few people who might appreciate it. Clooney's presence will move it out the door anyways ...and I'll bet you dollars to donuts that 90% of those that rent The American won't like it. I fell asleep... is what you'll likely hear.

...and if you're wondering Joe, Uptown did indeed take the Rita Collection tonight, after I took the sticker off her face and repositioned a new one. Asshole.



the coelacanth said...

ahahaha i knew he would.

i was hesitant about the american after reading the generally negative reviews, although kris' idol ebert gave it a sterling recommendation. i'll likely watch that and skip the town, which seems like more of the same with creepy masks. also, i really liked limits of control, and the pacing didn't bother me in the slightest, so it sounds again like the american is up my alley.

oh, and in this case, it's "lesser", not "lessor", a lease-holder.

La Sporgenza said...

Fixed....2:55am posting has its limitations. Think you'll like The American. Fantastic example of the kind of film that Hollywood rarely does. In his review of the film, Ebert suggests that, "People didn't want a look into the soul of an existential criminal. They wanted a formula to explain everything" It was the start point for this post and continues a theme that we've been posting about regularly this year.

La Sporgenza said...

...and on the matter of your original positioning of the $8.95 sticker right on top of lovely Rita's face, to remove it I had to soak the sticker with alcohol.

Oddly, that's exactly what happened to Hayworth in real life.

Dropkick said...

hahaha, well played Scott!

... oh and great review. I am intrigued by The American. I loved Corbijn's work on Control and really want to see what he does with this film.

Chandles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chandles said...

I agree with your positive reviews of Affleck's directing and the cast performances.

However, I found The Town ultimately disappointing; it wasn't enough about the heists to make it thrilling in that regard (that final heist that just could not be done without Affleck? I could have done that) and I hated most of the characters so fucking much that the emphasis placed on them just didn't make up for the lack of thrill. I wasn't rooting for anyone, they were all either idiots (in an oblivious sort of way) or assholes or both, but they weren't meant to be portrayed as such so I couldn't even root for a villainous lead.

But I will probably just lie for the next two weeks and tell customers that I loved it, just so I don't have to argue with them.

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