Affleck is Officially Back with The Town
Ben Affleck’s career has certainly had its highs and lows. He started out in small parts in such movies as Dazed & Confused and Mallrats. Then 1997 hit, during which his starring vehicle Chasing Amy and his Good Will Hunting (which he won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay) were released. Affleck’s career took off.
A series of hits followed, including Shakespeare in Love, Armageddon, and Dogma before several misses steadily slid his career downward, bottoming out with 2003’s Gigli and 2004’s Surviving Christmas (with a 6 and 7% positive score, respectively, at Rotten Tomatoes they are by far the worst-reviewed films of Affleck’s career). During this time, many of his movies were broad and high-concept and more about whose face was next to his on the poster than the storytelling. Also, Affleck starred in no less than three movies a year from 1997 to 2004, apparently preferring quantity over quality more often than not.
Starting in 2006 with roles in Hollywoodland and 2009’s State of Play, as well as a directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck slowly climbed his way back up to respectability. His second directorial feature, The Town, shows Affleck has completely broken away from films that tied him down while also solidifying a transformation that he’s been building to in recent years: that of a credible talent, someone who is more interested in substance than star power.
In The Town, Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, a former local hockey hero who blew a couple chances at moving on from the seedy little Boston neighborhood known as Charlestown to the national level. Tail between legs, MacRay went into the family robbery business. Charlestown has its hooks in MacRay and he decides during the course of the story to attempt to break free and wipe the slate clean. MacRay shares with Affleck the life of a fallen star that has to fight his way out of the gutter.
Doug is the brain behind his gang’s jobs and the film starts out with an extremely efficient and thorough hit of a bank (they sometimes target armored cars) that results in the brief, just-in-case getaway capture of assistant manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Keesey is released and it isn’t long before the gang discovers that their getaway girl lives in the neighborhood (she was blindfolded during the escape, but they want to be certain she wouldn’t recognize them on the street). Affleck steps up to ‘meet cute’ with her and find out if the boys have anything to worry about. Romance ensues.
Meanwhile, the FBI is on the case, headed by TV superstar Jon Hamm (Mad Men), and are keeping close tabs on witness Keesey. MacRay must worry about his feelings for Claire and the possibility of his secret jeopardizing their relationship, his hot-headed adopted brother Jem (played with perfect intensity by Jeremy Renner) going too far and bringing unwanted attention to the gang, the FBI somehow obtaining concrete evidence to put them all away, and his clingy ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively) jeopardizing his new relationship or his work. Talk about a full plate!
The Town is written and directed in such a way that it isn’t weighed down by this juggling act. Affleck can only take partial credit for the writing since it’s based on a novel, but his direction is assured. He recently spoke in an interview about how, while helming this picture, he cobbled together his experiences from some directors he’s worked with. It shows. For example, it’s clear he learned much from car chase extraordinaire John Frankenheimer (Ronin) while working on Reindeer Games. A good chase sequence is one where the audience is no further ahead than the main characters, every sharp turn or sudden obstacle is a surprise. The Town features one of those good ones.
Let’s not fail to mention Affleck’s cast. This is not a film intended to break the theater marquee with a mile-long A-list troupe. Make no mistake: this is a fine cast that is picked more for their substance than name recognition and includes Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, and Blake Lively. The latter two are the only ones with any recognition of late, so let’s talk about them briefly first.
Jon Hamm is the Eliot Ness of the story, the agent who is determined to get these guys. I’ll often use the word ‘fine’ to describe this movie to others. In general, I intend it in the best possible meaning of the word. With Hamm, I use ‘fine’ to describe him in the middle-of-the-road sense. He serves his purpose, but he’s no Costner in The Untouchables or even Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.
Blake Lively, however, gets maybe a quarter as much screen time and is much more impressive in her makeover. To be honest, I’m not all that familiar with the actress or her TV series Gossip Girl. It wasn’t until after watching The Town that I learned she’s a young twenty-something known for her fashion model looks. As Krista Coughlin, MacRay’s drug-addicted ex-girlfriend and Jem’s little sister, Lively plays pathetic and tacky, wearing gold rings and necklaces, looking like thirty-something white trash who’s always high, wearing too much make-up, and only pretends she’s harder to get than she really is. This is a small, yet highly impressive performance.
Jeremy Renner, the break-out star of last year’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker plays a good foil for MacRay in that Jem is a man who has embraced those chains keeping him rooted in Charlestown crime. He grabs on with both hands and warmly embraces them, ready for the opportunity to take things a step too far. Jem fully accepts the prospect of a dead-end standoff in his future, not only embracing his place in society but also as though he somewhat romanticizes his life as that of an Old West outlaw.
Rebecca Hall, best known for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is an intriguing choice simply because she could’ve very easily lost out to the likes of Charlize Theron or Natalie Portman as the love interest, fine actresses who are much bigger box office draws. The fact that Affleck went with Hall, a woman known best for her acting than as a face that sells, is very telling of the direction he wanted to go with this film. Hall is a great choice, a perfect balance between a silver screen beauty and an Everywoman. She brings weight and authenticity to the role of a traumatized banker who somehow allows herself to open up to a man she knows less about than she thinks.
The rest of the cast offers brief appearances by Cooper and Postlethwaite whose appearances make their characters all the more memorable. Affleck himself, arguably the film’s lone star with his salt-and-pepper jarhead, plays the lead and more than carries his weight here, thereby reminding us that he is in fact a talented actor.
But it’s in his direction that The Town really shines. Affleck knows what the audience expects at times and succeeds at heading them off. He also knows how to successfully create tension. There is a simple scene of dialogue between three characters where one character knows a single piece of information the other two don’t. The way that scene is played out may make it the film’s most intense scene and is definitely among the most intense moments I’ve seen all year.
Is The Town a great movie? No. But it wraps the crime genre around itself like a warm blanket. It’s enjoyable enough that you won’t mind underneath all the excellent performances and direction is a familiar crime film that’s just above average. As such, it’s a very fine Town Affleck has here.
Should you see it? Rent
The Town is now in theaters.