Brief Reviews: The Town vs. Animal Kingdom

When Ben Affleck’s The Town came out, many praised it as a powerful crime drama/action film. And yet, the shine seems to have come off of that project, probably as a result of people chasing the hype and actually watching it.

First, let’s discuss its poster. In recent years, I’ve become sensitive to bad marketing. A good example of this is the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall: the ad campaign (in Toronto at least) consisted of anonymous black and white bus and streetcar ads, with hand-scrawled “I HATE YOU SARAH MARSHALL!” (and the like) written on them*. In short, the campaign was cheap-looking, lame, and soured any potential expectation I had for the film – it wasn’t until much later, at my wife’s urging, that I caught it on DVD and found it to be one of the highlights of the year.

Similarly, the poster for The Town (displayed here) is a marketing mystery to me: it looks like a horror movie. It’s directed by and stars Ben Affleck, yet the poster is covered in evil nuns with automatic weapons. In short, I don’t get it: sure, it’s a “serious movie” but what were they thinking? Was it reverse psychology? Who knows. If it were me, it would be a close-up photo of John Hamm licking Ben Affleck’s unshaven face, with the caption: “Holy shit! It’s the guy from MadMen with Ben Affleck! And they  shoot weapons!”

Then there’s the film itself. Technically, it’s very impressive. Affleck’s direction is solid. The performances are gritty and engaging. It’s free of stunt-casting. Camerawork, editing, sound: great. But when the credits rolled, I realized what was wrong. The story’s been done a hundred fucking times before – twice by Michael Mann. So, for me, there was nothing being risked as a viewer because, having watched more than one crime drama in my life, there were no surprises in the script. Believe me when I say that I wanted this film to be as good as it promised – and, in fact, it is good. Just not as good as it clearly could’ve been when you take into account all that it has going for it.

So what did I want The Town to be? I wasn’t sure…until I saw the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom on DVD. It has all the grit, tension, and complexity of The Town, with less overt style and more substance, and no actors recognizable to most North American audiences (outside of Memento‘s Guy Pearce). Its poster? Have a look:

It reminds me of a Jeff Wall photograph. And in the middle of it all is the crafty look on the face of actor Jacki Weaver (nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2011 Oscars).

Animal Kingdom is a film fluent in the crime drama language – it even shares some of the tropes of The Town (the nervous druggie robber, the dutiful police detective) yet never once feels as if you are watching a re-treaded story. It is unpredictable and the performances are naturalistic and subtle.Its lack of artifice keeps us watching, whereas with The Town, each successive car chase weighed it down with Hollywood cliché. Where one carries broader tension, the other is quietly disturbing and takes a more nihilistic view of the cops and robbers game.

The good news is that both are available for your perusal on DVD, and both are extremely watchable. Neither, ultimately, will disappoint: it depends on where your expectations are set. I feel that Animal Kingdom is the film The Town wanted to be.

* I admit I’m particularly sensitive to ads which don’t make it clear that they are ads, especially if they look like actual public messages of hatred.


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