In 2007, Ben Affleck took many by surprise with his nuanced and gritty directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone.”
The adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel was a tough and twisty examination of crime in a Boston neighborhood. It earned Amy Ryan a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and convinced several critics that Affleck’s skill behind the camera might be strong enough to put the “Gigli” jokes to rest once and for all.
With his sophomore follow up “The Town,” Affleck may have also earned the right to have “Jersey Girl,” “Paycheck” and the Animal Crackers scene in “Armageddon” stricken from his record. Keeping his eyes on Beantown, Affleck crafts one of the most riveting crime thrillers in years and delivers one of the strongest performances of his career.
The film is set in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, an area known for having more bank robberies than any area in the country. Heists are a way of life to Charlestown boys, who seem to inherit it from their fathers the way others take on the family hardware store.
Doug MacRay (Affleck) is one of those boys. His father in prison for a murder-robbery, MacRay is a washed up hockey player and drug addict who now organizes robberies for an Irish crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite). As the film opens, MacRay and his crew commit a brutal bank heist, taking manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage before leaving her stranded by the ocean.
Upon learning that Claire lives only four blocks from the gang, MacRay’s hot-headed partner Jem (Jeremy Renner) suggests silencing the witness. MacRay, hoping to keep the situation from turning violent, offers to follower her and see what she knows. The two strike up a relationship that has Doug beginning to reconsider his criminal ways, all while Jem tries to convince him to take on a big score and an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) pieces together the new string of robberies plaguing Boston.
This is all well-tread territory and Affleck doesn’t try to reinvent the genre. What “The Town” may lack in originality, it makes up for in reliability.
I was one of the reviewers impressed with “Gone Baby Gone,” but Affleck outdoes himself here. The film, beautifully photographed by Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”) is a slick, energetic affair. The action sequences move with an electricity reminiscent of Michael Mann or William Friedkin, particularly a chase through Boston and a blistering climax inside Fenway Park.
It’s easy to crash cars, shoot guns and blow things up, but Affleck also knows how to play out the film’s quieter scenes, knowing just how long to hold a shot and deliver the suspense and emotion the moment calls for. An encounter between Doug, Claire and Jem at an outdoor bistro is fraught with tension, with the entire scene hinging on whether Claire will notice a tattoo on the back of Jem’ neck. The scene plays out with delicious suspense, thanks to both nimble directing and strong performances by Affleck, Renner and Hall.
Despite some unfortunate career choices earlier a few years back, Affleck has always had a strong screen presence, delivering solid performances in films like “Chasing Amy” and “Changing Lanes.” As Doug, Affleck ably captures the weariness of a man born into crime, raised by criminals and proceeding fatefully into the underworld. Claire provides a glimmer of goodness, intelligence and humanity into Doug’s world, forcing him to think that change might be possible. But his convict father (Chris Cooper) and Jem serve as reminders that Doug is a street kid and that leaving behind the crime-ridden Charlestown streets would not be seen as escape, but abandonment. In a way, it’s the anti-“Good Will Hunting.”
Hall is solid as Claire, and Hamm is terrific as the driven as the FBI agent on Doug’s trail whose ethics may be slimier than Doug’s. Cooper, relegated to one scene, still manages to impress and bring a gravity to the film. But it’s Renner, hot off “The Hurt Locker,” who steals the show, taking the cliché “live-wire” character and giving him a sense of misguided honor and a willingness to do anything at all to stay out of jail and keep his friends nearby. It’s a fantastic performance and Renner creates a terrifying character.
Affleck loves his hometown and, as in “Gone Baby Gone,” he makes Boston a central character in the film. His characters are defined by their settings, wearied and beaten-down by family histories that have played out in the city for years. Elswit’s photography captures Beantown in all of its glory; Boston hasn’t looked this good since “The Departed.”
The film balances its action sequences and relationships well, rarely bogging down in exposition and keeping the breakneck scenes plausible and comprehensible. Affleck allows his characters to breathe and grow without sacrificing the film’s pacing. Only in the final moments does the tone slip from his grasp, turning what should have been a hard and gritty ending into something a bit too cheesy and sentimental. As much as I love “The Shawshank Redemption,” that’s the last film I should have been thinking of at the end of “The Town.”
There’s nothing about “The Town” that hasn’t been done before. Where it succeeds, however, is in taking those familiar elements—the robber with one last job, a chance at redemption and a vicious partner—and playing them out with tension, skill and drama. You may have seen it all before, but rarely is it done this well.