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.
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.
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.