The movie opens with a heist, led by Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck). It's mostly successful, except that the loose cannon of the group (Jeremy Renner) gets a little too punch-happy and they're forced to take a hostage - the lovely bank manager (Rebecca Hall, in a perfectly undetectable American accent). Thanks to that now standard crime-film trope of silly masks (a glorious tradition that I'm pretty sure began with Point Break), she doesn't actually see anything or know anything. But the boys get a little spooked anyway, and so Affleck naturally volunteers to keep an eye on her. Gradually, this evolves into not only keeping an eye on her, but hands and lips all over her (this is not a spoiler, it's in the trailer).
No new boundaries were broken here; after all, there is a predictable line such stories have to follow:
Key incident #1: Boy meets girl
Key incident #2: Boy must spy on girl unless she gives the cops any information, but they fall in love.
Key incident #3: She finds out the truth.
Of course what makes these movies interesting is not whether they hit these points or not, because truthfully it's inevitable (if the girl doesn't find out, for example, the viewer feels cheated). But we watch to see what weight these points are given, why she doesn't find out the truth, and what happens AFTER she finds out the truth.
It's easy to see why she doesn't find out: Ben Affleck is utterly charming (and strangely - some might say improbably - Jon Hamm has not the slightest bit of charm in his role as the FBI investigator). It's so good to see Affleck back in roles he actually shines in - I've always thought he was a good actor - instead of getting sucked into Bennifer shenanigans and other garbage. He's not really meant to be a romantic hero. He's something else, more off-the-cuff, less predictable in his motives (which is probably why he utterly failed at being Jack Ryan). Also, Claire wears her trauma on her sleeve - she carries it everywhere she goes for that first week. It's easy to understand why she's desperate to find someone who will help her make sense of her terror, especially when the FBI failed to do so.
Of course, things do not go smoothly. MacRay's associates do not take well to the news when they find out; Gem in particular feels betrayed, though not as betrayed as his sister (in a surprisingly tolerable performance by Blake Lively). Renner is fantastic as Gem - he carries much of the foolish bravado that embodied his character in Hurt Locker, but with even less restraint. He can turn from still to busting heads in a millisecond, and is terrifying.
Thusly we reach a breaking point: MacRay is pulled by tensions coming from every direction: the FBI raise the heat on him, his mob boss reveals an uglier side than his bruised face already betrayed, Blake Lively goes a little crazy. The film deals with these questions and many others - whether you like the final act is a matter of personal taste, but I happened to love it. This may not be the most important movie of the year, but there's something to be said for quality films with less fanfare that just get on with the business of giving mainstream viewers a good time without insulting their intelligence.
I'm also glad Ben Affleck's back into making quality fare, and look forward to his next project.