Ben Affleck may be a better director than actor. And considering the quality of his latest performance, that’s saying something meaningful.
The Town, in which he stars as a criminally-minded counterpart to the character played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, features Affleck’s sure hand at the helm as a director. Like Gone Baby Gone, his feature directorial debut, The Town is, for much of its running time, a somber, contemplative drama. Unlike his previous effort, however, The Town enjoys a solid dose of down to earth humor, and is enlivened by traditional action set-pieces.
The bang-bang bank robbing sequences benefit from being shot on location in Boston, with narrow city blocks serving as a concrete maze that the thieves are desperate to escape. The film itself is set in the Charlestown neighborhood, where more bank and armored-car robberies are committed than anywhere else in the country, we’re informed by the opening titles. The idea, evidently, is that the neighborhood is so tight that no one ever rats out anyone else (likely out of fear of reprisal as much as misplaced loyalty).
Operating with intelligence and discipline, the four-man unit led by Affleck is supposed to be more successful than most. They plan out every step with extreme care and never leave behind any incriminating evidence.
Of course, their modus operandi is blown to smithereens in the very first job shown on screen. Affleck’s best friend Jeremy Renner gets all hot and bothered, smashes the assistant bank manager into a bloody pulp, and kidnaps the lovely bank manager, played by Rebecca Hall. This goes against all their rules, and forces one of them to surveil Hall to see what she might have told the authorities. Affleck, afraid that Renner might kill the lady, flirts with Hall at a laundromat, leading to an easy pick-up and a tentative mating dance.
The FBI remains in hot pursuit, as represented by Jon Hamm. It’s not clear why this particular gang has been singled out for a task force to investigate, but it doesn’t take very long for the team to suss out the identities of the four men, and for Hamm to try leaning on them.
They’re tough nuts to crack, and that applies to their private lives as well. Renner has returned from a nine-year stint in prison, and has hardened into a ball of fury. His sister, Blake Lively, has a kid as well as various addictions, one of them being her lingering affection for Affleck.
For his part, Affleck has no compunction about responding to Lively’s dispassionate sexual aggressiveness, but he’s ready for a change, and Hall presents him with that opportunity. She’s the most sympathetic character, a woman who has moved into the neighborhood and adapted to the challenges that its criminal elements bring.
Affleck’s character is more difficult to read. The movie plays as though he’s a true heroic type, the tiger who wants to change his stripes and get a fresh start. Certainly he’s an independent type, but we never understand why this failed, would-be professional hockey player deserves any sympathy for returning to the criminal path set by his father, bank robbing Chris Cooper, in a deft cameo. He’s shown to be just as ruthless as Renner, if less blood-thirsty, and his evident pride in not having killed anyone seems as much a product of blind luck as intentional mercy.
The plot and characters start to fall apart the more they’re examined. While it’s playing, however, The Town feels real and authentic, with a distinctive mood and pace set by Affleck and enacted by a fine cast (including Pete Postelwaite as a crusty florist). Despite all the expected beats, it manages to be more subtle than not much of the time.
And Ben Affleck gives more of himself as an actor than he has to most any other director.