With The Town, Ben Affleck restates what was so evident from his Gone, Baby Gone debut, that he’s a hell of a director. He has an inherent understanding of genre writing, and a facility for making smart, strong choices that strengthens the material. Not only is he a gifted director, but he has a deep understanding of acting and actors that’s never really shone through in his own acting work. The performances he elicits from all of his actors across the board are so honest, true, deep, and textured that the influence and support of the director is quite obvious.
It certainly doesn’t hurt matters that in both cases Affleck has started with contemporary crime fiction of the highest caliber. First with Dennis LeHane on Baby, and this time with Chuck Hogan’s critically-lauded Prince of Thieves. I suppose the reason for the name change going from book to film had to do with avoiding the inevitable mental connection to the troubled Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie. That has nothing to do with The Town, which is about a suburb of Boston named Charlestown (hence the shortening to “the ‘town”) that happens to have been the largest producer of bank robbers for generations, most of whom continue to remain local. Affleck has managed to score Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite for small roles as the father of his character and Jeremy Renner’s, neither of which amounts to much more than a cameo, but these are such strong actors that their performances are noteworthy support posts. Affleck himself plays the lead role, and the leader of a group of young, local bank robbers; and Renner has the showy, key part of the emotionally unhinged member of the group. Although Renner’s star is on the rise of late, he’s been a fantastic working for years and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more with the part. Rebecca Hall, previously seen in Starter for 10 and Vicki Christina Barcelona, is similarly a star-on-the-rise and an actor of remarkable substance. She plays a bank teller during the robbery in the opening sequence that Renner unwisely decides to take along for a ride during their escape out of some sense of distrust and a misguided notion to control her by scaring her. This creates a need for the crew to keep an eye on her, since her having been taken as a hostage means she’s the FBI’s key witness. And since Renner is such a knee-jerk reactionary, the responsibility of keeping tabs on her falls to Affleck, which isn’t the best thing since we already know he’s romantically interested in her.
The lead FBI investigator is played by Jon Hamm, who’s at the top of his game here. His performance as an impassioned do-gooder is a real argument for his casting as Superman in the upcoming Christopher Nolan-produced reboot. He may be a bit long in the tooth depending on how they’re going with the Superman franchise, but damn if he doesn’t have all of the essential qualities of the caped crusader. Even Affleck’s performance is strong, and his acting seems to have strongly benefited from his directing experience. Surrounding himself with such strong talent has certainly upped his game, but likely a good portion of the improvement is also due to his immersion in the overall filmmaking process. If anything, Affleck seems like an actor who may out-think himself too much, and is better off having to give more of an intuitive performance on the fly while his brain is still locked up pondering all of the director’s questions, rather than having the time and luxury to undercut himself. He even manages to get an emotionally compelling and authentically seedy performance from teen-television favorite Blake Lively as a young, trashy Boston single mother.
Between Affleck, Hamm, Renner and Hall, a modest crime thriller that doesn’t really break any new ground is never less than compelling. And even with all of these strong performances, the glue that holds it all together, and probably the greatest strength of the film, is Affleck’s assured directing. He’s already working at a level that most A-list directors struggle to hit, and he’s consistent with two for two right out of the gate. The Town may not win any Oscars, but that’s more of a result of a too-familiar story, and it gives Affleck something to shoot for in the future. He’s ready to take the next step forward and graduate from solid genre material to something truly thought-provoking. Either way, The Town is one of a handful of films that’s been released in the last six months that genuinely merits your time, and one of the few mainstream releases in that group that you can count on one hand.
During the closing credits, Affleck notes that while the film has focused on portraying a certain noteworthy element of Charlestown, they aren’t representative of most of the suburb’s residents, who the film is dedicated to. Some may interpret this as some small amount of pandering in a bid for good will, but it’s this kind of thoughtfulness and class that really marks Affleck as a director. Well, that and his ability to make smart choices and genuinely deliver the goods, which sets him well ahead of such A-list hack darlings as Ron Howard.