Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, John Hamm, Rebecca Hall
For quite awhile after winning a Best Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting it seemed as if Ben Affleck was doomed to be remembered not for that accomplishment, but for his string of bad performances in even worse films. While friend and fellow Academy Award winner Mat Damon went on to prove time and time again he had serious acting chops, Affleck struggled to do basically anything except become the butt of pop-culture jokes ("Bennifer", anyone?) and squander all the good will (pun most definitely intended) earned from the little naked gold statue.
Then came Gone Baby Gone, one of the best films of 2007 which just so happened to be directed by the former Mr. Jennifer Lopez. Filled with fantastic performances and location shooting that made the film a staggering sense of authenticity, Gone Baby Gone introduced us to the reinvented Ben Affleck: one hell of a great director.
Three years later Affleck has returned with The Town, this time pulling double duty both behind and in front of the camera. Like Gone Baby Gone, it's based on a novel and takes place in Boston, Massachusetts. Also like Gone Baby Gone, it features some great acting with a supporting cast that could have come straight from the streets of Charlestown (the Boston neighborhood the film takes place in) themselves. One final similarity it shares with the director's previous film is that, while he's perfectly mediocre as an actor, Affleck is a very talented filmmaker.
In a tired and cliched story, professional bank robber Doug MacRay struggles to get out of his dangerous career and into the arms of new sweetheart Claire Keesey (the lovely Rebecca Hall). That she also happens to have been MacRay and his gang's hostage during a bank robbery that takes place at the beginning of the film is the only twist that keeps The Town's screenplay from being any other "one last job and I'm out because I'm really a softy at heart" film. That she doesn't realize who her beau is adds a layer of intensity to the film's two hours and five minutes (will she find out!? Won't she!?), but other than that aspect there won't be a single surprise in store for you, if you've seen enough movies.
What will surprise you, however, is just how fine-tuned and tight the film is overall, and how well Affleck has crafted what is one of the best moves of the year (again). MacRay's story may have been told many times before, but Affleck gets miracle performances out of his actors, and populates the film with a convincing array of extras and townies, giving Charlestown a sense of place and the film a layer of realness. Affleck has a gift for convincing you that these people actually exist and could be walking around the streets of Boston at this very moment.
Another surprise is how great of an action director Affleck is. There are two sprawling action set-pieces in the film, and he handles them like a seasoned pro. Many have compared the film's climactic shootout to Heat's never-been-topped gun fight, and while The Town's cops vs. robbers bullet battle certainly doesn't up the anti, it's still remarkably well shot, directed, and edited. Audience members who have been thirsting for street gun-play will find that chunk of the film quenching.
That he's merely a decent actor doesn't harm The Town much, even though Affleck has to carry the film on his shoulders. He's fine in the role, if not particularly memorable. The real performances to savor come from Jeremy Rennar, Rebecca Hall, and Blake Lively. As MacRay's ill-tempered and increasingly dangerous James Coughlin, Rennar plays Pesci to Affleck's De Niro. He may be short and compact in stature, but Rennar infuses Coughlin with a fiery energy that makes him scary and threatening. Rebecca Hall plays vulnerable and wounded extremely well, so much so that it's hard not to dislike MacRay for manipulating her the way he does. Blake Lively is the biggest revelation here, however. As MacRay's on and again/off again (mostly off again) flame Krista (who is also James's sister), Lively does an award worthy job. If I didn't have IMDB handy to see that she was born in southern California, I would swear Affleck plucked her straight from the streets of Charlestown. That she's only 23 is even more shocking. Krista is a sad byproduct of Charlestown's criminal culture. How Lively imbued herself with that I have no idea. But she does. And it works.
The only casting misfire (besides Affleck, although that's not so much a misfire as it is simply choosing a better actor) is John Hamm as FBI agent Adam Frawley. By no means a bad actor, Hamm simply has one of the wonkier small to big screen transitions I've seen in awhile. Perhaps it's because he's so closely identified with Mad Men's Don Draper that makes Hamm seem like he permanently exists in a previous time period. Or perhaps he just doesn't have what it takes to play determined and tough law enforcement. Whatever it is, Hamm's performance seems to come from some other film and, while it doesn't ruin the film, it's certainly distracting.
It's great to see that The Town is not Affleck's sophomore slump and is, in fact, quite a good film. I don't think it will be looked at, in time, as a better film than Gone Baby Gone (the handling of that film's headlong dive into murky morality makes it more important and more enjoyable than The Town), but it will definitely be looked at as the project that solidified Ben Affleck's status as a filmmaker to look forward to.