Up until his directorial debut of Gone Baby, Gone, Ben Affleck was going through quite a career rough patch. After the pop fizzle of flops like Gigli, Jersey Girl, Paycheck, and…shit, I’m just gonna roll up everything he’s done in the last ten years. Bottom line: Affleck has suffered some career identity issues.
With Gone Baby, Gone, an effective adaptation of the Denis Lehane novel, Affleck let it be known that he wasn’t about to sink into obscurity quietly. I wasn’t blown away by his first effort, but that stems mostly from having read the book and chalking up the book-is-better-than-the-movie card to it. However, credit must be given where it’s due and Affleck certainly earned it by not only making a good film, but by chumping all expectations and having that movie not suck, which is the toughest magic act in Hollywood.
Now comes The Town, Affleck’s second foray behind the camera (and first wearing multiple hats as director/actor/screenwriter), and it’s a leap above the first. Based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan, The Town, is a crime drama/thriller that is seeped in the atmosphere of the title’s slang term, focusing on a band of bank robbers, led by Affleck, conducting their operations in the bank robbery capital of the U.S., Charlestown, MA. From the outfits, the locations, and of course, the accents, even if you’ve never been to Boston (like me) you’ll feel like you’ve stepped off a bus and entered a new world.
By filming in the exact locations that the film is based, Affleck is able to inject the kind of atmosphere needed. I would’ve called bullshit the first time I spotted a palm tree, but fortunately that’s not the case here. Many of the smaller roles that inhabit the environment of The Town are Boston locals and they wear it on their sleeve (or their rugged faces), which lends a great sense of “being there.”
Another thing Affleck has going for him is the outstanding cast he’s assembled, notwithstanding himself. The acting, by all accounts, is the meat and potatoes of this film. Jeremy Renner, fresh off of The Hurt Locker, turns in a crazy, unpredictable and dangerous performance as Affleck’s best friend, Jem (This guy’s a real ‘jem.’ Get it?). Blake Lively of Gossip Girl fame plays a pretty good drunk slut on oxy with dependency issues. Pete Postlewaite (In The Name of the Father) plays a thick-Irish accented mob-like organizer, and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona) is well suited as the bank manager victim of the groups first robbery, playing it sad, naïve, and suddenly hurt to a tee. A one-scene cameo by Chris Cooper as Affleck’s father is the icing on the already delicious casting cake.
The other cast member who adds great weight and balance to the film is Jon Hamm (AMC’s Mad Men). As the FBI agent assigned to the bank robber’s case, Hamm has the rare opportunity of playing the good guy we love to hate. The ironic duality of both Hamm and Affleck’s roles are that Affleck, who is a criminal, is supposed to be the bad guy we want to get busted and go to prison, while Hamm is the FBI agent we’re supposed to root for and hope he gets his guy. But, that’s not the case. It’s the opposite for each character. Hamm comes off as an arrogant, above-the-law type who uses manipulation and coercion to great effect in catching his bad guys, whereas Affleck is the soft-touch criminal, applying just the right amount of force, reiterating that they will not be killing anyone and is regretful of the life he’s led and is hungry for a better one.
To me, this is the strongest aspect of the story and creates a pulse-pounding sense of dread and anxiety, where the stakes are set and the bar raised to the point where we hold our breath for the ending we want, but may not get. When a film creates that tension, the burgeoning desire to see how things play out, then it’s truly done its job. By the end of the film I was clenching my jaw at every turn, hoping that the outcome I had in my head would come to fruition, cursing different characters’ actions and lamenting others.
Now, don’t get the impression that this film is perfect. It’s not. There are some contrived interactions, mostly those between Affleck and Hall’s characters, who become lovers in an awkwardly paced way (a series of dates and revelations, finally leading to the bedroom). Lively’s drunken oxy-whore character disappears for the entire middle of the film, never seen again until the end, where she deliver’s a conveniently placed story device for Hamm’s FBI agent. Her payoff was weak and her character deserved more screen time.
Although not quite the caliber of other crime thrillers in terms of action, The Town doesn’t skimp on going balls out from time to time. The grit and feel of the streets of Charlestown were every bit their own character during these sequences, and the final showdown at Fenway Park is the crown jewel of locations for both fans, natives, and anyone into baseball. There is ample gunplay and rough men doing rough violence to one another. Not quite The Departed, but it’s not quite the same movie, either. That being said, The Town is definitely the best crime thriller I’ve seen since then.
The Town isn’t complicated or hard to follow. It’s easy to follow, easy on the eyes, and easy on the palette. There’s no heavy lifting, just pure gritty cinema. It won’t redefine the genre, but its a welcome addition and a cut above the rest at that. If anything, Affleck, both on and off camera, has let us know that not only has he not faded away, but is rising to the top. Finally.