Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Town: ticking bombs of suspense

I had planned on using a particular scene in The Town as the subject for today's post. Then I read Roger Ebert's review and found that he opened with a several paragraph discussion of that very scene. As there had been a suggestion that both Scott Myers and I would cover The Town in separate posts, I lamented in a discussion thread on Go Into The Story that I might have to go back to the drawing board.

Fortunately, Nate Winslow came to the rescue when he posted this:

"That bit about the tattoo-covering moment with Doug/Claire/Jem? That's a popular moment, apparently: I was planning on using that as an example for MY write-up on the movie haha. In my studying of the various versions of that script that I found, that bit wasn't in any of them. Neither is the moment of seeing Jem's tattoo during the robbery itself. So, whoever stuck that in there on a last minute revision is a genius."

Viola! I had my topic!

For those not in the know, here's the set-up: A gang of four guys in Charlestown have been pulling several robberies. On their latest bank hit, the hot-headed Jem (Jeremy Renner, who will always be Penn from Angel to me) takes along assistant manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage before soon releasing her. Now he's worried that she can identify them once he finds out that she lives in their neigborhood. He's prepared to kill her as a preemptive measure.

The more level-headed Doug (Ben Affleck) offers to check up on her and make sure she isn't a risk. He ends up romancing her and soon Doug is trying to keep his partners from finding out about his new girlfriend even as he's keeping the truth from her. Claire talks to him about the robbery and mentions a detail she didn't tell the FBI - a distinctive tattoo on the back of one of the robber's necks. We - and Doug - know she's talking about Jem's tattoo, and if Doug was truly keeping his agreement with Jem, he'd kill her for that.

The scene that Roger, Nate and I are all over the moon about comes about midway through the script. Jem confronts Doug while he's out with Claire. Though Jem is outwardly polite to Claire, he sends some clear subtext to Doug along the lines of "Why are you dating the one girl who could nail us to the FBI? What else are you hiding?" Worse, Doug knows that the instant Claire sees that tattoo, the pieces are going to fall into place - and then things can only end badly from there.

The tension hits fever pitch and the directing does an excellent job of making us empathize with Doug's tight spot. It's a rare film that can make an audience hold their breath just with one scene of three people talking. This is the perfect example of the sort of suspense I talked about back here. There's a bomb in that scene and we don't know when it's going to go off.

The secret of the tattoo is so critical to the tension among all three characters that it's hard to believe what Nate says above, that it wasn't in an earlier draft. Here's just a quick look at what that tattoo means:

- Claire can identify at least one of the robbers.
- Thus, when Doug finds out what she knows he's actively defying Jem's orders to kill her if she's able to expose them.
- In turn, this means that Doug's ass is on the line and he has to keep Claire from finding out the truth because not only does that put her at risk, but it means she will find out who he is too.

Without that tattoo, there's not much to push it to the boiling point. Sure, Jem might eventually decide that Claire is too great a risk for them to chance, but if she can't identify him, then his motivations for killing her are inaccurate. It works so much better when she actually could figure out who he is. It opens the door to her figuring out Doug's true identity on her own, or perhaps identifying Jem herself and somehow escaping in time to notify the FBI.

Having that secret makes Claire a more active part of the story rather than just a love interest for Doug and a target for Jem. Her actions have a more direct chance to change the game rather than just being a plot device for conflict between the two robbers. It's one of my favorite things about this movie. And it took a rewrite to find that moment.

Let that be a lesson - you can always push an idea further. Find that twist that elevates a character from plot device to player, the moment that makes the stakes that much higher and multiples the ways things can go really wrong.

I have to say, I liked this movie a lot. That's an impressive feat when you consider that I read far too many scripts about Irish guys from "the neighborhood" who think of each other like brothers and fancy themselves master thieves. (The Boondock Saints has a helluva lot to answer for. Remind me to punch Troy Duffy in the face next time I see him.) Done wrong, this could have been like scripts I read several times a month. I'm sick of reading this genre, so if anyone was going to come into this film with their teeth sharpened, it's me.

So here's my plea to all of you: if you liked The Town, please emulate its storytelling rather than its subject. The world doesn't need another script about Irish hoods trying to make the big score unless it's a DAMN good one.


  1. ah this scene.
    it belongs to this very specific genre that I just made up called "slapstick suspense" - that I define as a scene that on paper sounds like a slapstick sequence, but the laughs are traded for thrills. This is not to be confused with a suspenseful slapstick scene, in which laughs are added to a scene that's filled with a lot of tension.
    I think a sequence is slapstick when the situation is out of the hero's control and the struggle is over something incredibly physical - like Tom Cruise's drop of sweat in Mission Impossible - and it takes a special kind of writer to be able to discover such a totem in a scene. It's rare. More frequently a suspenseful scene has a bad guy with superior forces wanting something from the good guy. But anyways.
    Resting all stakes on which way an unsuspecting's neck turns would've been a beautiful slapstick comedy scene. And I can't find too many other examples of such though in my mind there must be dozens. please help me out. it's been killing me.

  2. Agreed. Even in the theater watching that scene I thought "That's genius." I also appreciate that Affleck didn't linger on the shot of the tattoo or do a dozen close-ups to remind us. We're smart. We remember. The film is full of moments that let the audience put the pieces together, and that's one of the things that makes it so good. My other favorite is the scene when, dressed as nuns, they accidentally come up on the cop in his squad car.

  3. After reading this, the first thing I did was double-check all three drafts of the script to make sure that the tattoo moments were actually not there...They really aren't! Which. Yeah. Mind-boggling, as you say. Not sure who gets the credit for that revision, but probably either Aaron Stockard or Affleck himself.

    I know one of the things that Scott mentioned to me briefly about the movie was that it's an action-centric premise that only has three action set-pieces in it. And between number one and two, there's a solid 40ish minutes. That seems like it would leave a pretty big vacuum to fill, but I think it's the fact that there are moments like these that are constantly raising the stakes for these characters (and more specifically, Doug) that makes that work. Reading that back to myself, seems like that should be said about every theatrical release, but sadly--not the case. And it works really well here, weaving through multiple sub-plots. Jem's sister/Doug/being scorned/the FBI agent. Jem/Doug/Jem going to prison for Doug/Doug trying to leave him. Claire/Doug/he's actually the guy who robbed the bank. Fergie/Doug/Doug's dad/Doug's mom. Etc, etc. All rising through the second act to push us through to the Fenway heist.

    So yeah. Bitter sums it up: done wrong, this could have sucked. But it was done really, really right, and I thought it was one of the best theater experiences this year.

  4. (Totally seconding Pete's comment as well. That's extremely rare. I'm trying to think of some other moments like that that were crafted on the page...coming up blank.)