The Town and Animal Kingdom are grim and gritty, but In My Sleep is a snore

by Mark Burger

Having made a creditable debut as director with the 2007 adaptation of Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck returns to call the shots in The Town, an energetic crime yarn filmed on location in and around Affleck’s old Boston stomping grounds.

The title town in question is Charlestown, a none-too-happy enclave where the criminal element of Boston seems to have gravitated… at least according to a post-credit legend that goes out of its way to explain and excuse such behavior. Affleck’s Doug MacRay is the leader of a ring of bank robbers whose exploits have aroused the interest not only of the community at large but also the FBI, personified by hard-nosed, single-minded agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm of TV’s “Mad Men”).

For reasons that have more to do with propelling the plot forward than anything else, Doug enters into a romantic relationship with Claire (Rebecca Hall), a bank teller whom he met while holding her hostage during the gang’s latest stick-up. If one is willing to buy the notion that a bank robber would fall in love with a former hostage, then accepting The Town’s other melodramatic story contrivances — and there are a few — shouldn’t be difficult.

As an actor-turned-director (and screenwriter here), Affleck gives ample room — perhaps too much at times — to his fellow actors, even when their material’s a little thin. Yet, in both his capacities both in front of and behind the camera, Affleck does his best to keep the energy factor high. He also makes great use of the Boston locations, culminating in a climactic heist involving the “cathedral” of Beantown — Fenway Park, and during a Yankees/Red Sox homestand, no less!

Jeremy Renner, doing his best James Cagney, scores nicely as MacRay’s hot-headed right-hand man, and Pete Postlethwaite exudes low-key menace as the neighborhood florist/crime czar who keeps everyone quaking in their shoes. Chris Cooper gets prominent billing as MacRay’s convict father, although he only has one scene in the film. Blake Lively, Titus Welliver and Slaine round out the principal populace of The Town, a place where only the strong survive and a film that gets by on combustion and guts.

The animals of Animal Kingdom (opening Friday) are of the human variety — and all the more lethal because of it. The feature debut of writer/director David Michod, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, explores the trials of tribulations of troubled teen Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) — and he’s got a lot of them.

J’s mother has recently died of a drug overdose, and he’s sent to live among the bad brood of his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), a veritable modern-day Ma Barker who gleefully overlooks, and even encourages, her children’s lawlessness. To call this family “dysfunctional” would be a severe understatement, especially when it comes to “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), Janine’s oldest and craziest son, whose penchant for cruelty and sadism escalates throughout the story.

It’s only a matter of time before J and Pope find themselves on an inevitable collision course, at which point the story gets very wicked indeed. Animal Kingdom isn’t a lot of laughs, but it does possess a palpable, unpredictable tension that makes it memorable. The mere threat of potential violence is often as effective as an act of violence itself.

In his screen debut, Frecheville acquits himself well enough as a character who is mostly passive in the early stages, but he’s no match (nor is anyone else, for that matter) for the onscreen viciousness personified by Mendelsohn and Weaver, the latter of whom really comes into her own during the story’s latter stages.

A low-budget, low-impact thriller in the Hitchcock vein, In My Sleep (opening Friday) is truly a snoozer. It’s nice to see that filmmakers are still paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock, but so few of them come remotely close to emulating the Master’s touch.

Philip Winchester plays Marcus, the hero of the story, who suffers from parasomnia, a rare form of sleepwalking that occasionally sees him waking up in cemeteries clad only his underwear. If this wasn’t troublesome (or contrived) enough, he’s also a sex addict and he’s still nursing childhood guilt about his late father, exemplified in flashbacks that serve only to pad the film’s running time.

Marcus wakes up one day, covered in blood and clutching a butcher knife, but with no memory of how or why. The remainder of the film sees Marcus seeking those answers, which he does in mechanical, uninvolving fashion. As mysteries go, In My Sleep is strictly by the numbers, far more suitable to the small screen than the large.

Winchester is a buff but otherwise unremarkable protagonist, with resident red herrings played by Lacey Chabert, Abigail Spencer, Michael Badalucco, Beth Grant, Tim Drexel and Kevin Kilner. Whodunit? It doesn’t much matter. A more pressing question may be: Who cares?