I said I’d eventually start reviewing things on here, so I’ll start with The Town.
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone was a critical success. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, Affleck delivered a tense story well-told, bringing top-notch performances from all of his cast. He was singled out as a director to be watched, but much hinged on his second effort. So, for The Town, Affleck has tried to repeat much of what made Gone Baby Gone successful. The Town is another adaptation, this time from Chuck Logan’s novel ‘Prince of Thieves’, and is also based in Affleck’s home town of “Bahston”. This time however, Affleck also steps in front of the camera to take the lead role of Doug MacRay: a hockey washout who, with three friends, has turned to a life of bank robbing.
Has Affleck delivered on the promise and hype which Gone Baby Gone produced? The answer is a resounding yes. Gone Baby Gone had it’s flaws, but the biggest one for me was that it was occasionally hokey. While watching I became very aware that I WAS WATCHING A FILM. Rather than get sucked into the story, I found it to be like watching a documentary on Boston. Thankfully, The Town doesn’t suffer from the same problem. It too has it’s flaws but none so distracting. It’s a much more assured effort from Affleck, his stride has definitely been hit.
The story won’t win any prizes for originality. Man does bad things, man falls in love, man seeks to change his ways and leave despite resistance from those around him. But Affleck directs in a way that makes that well-trodden path seem newly-repaired. It’s a film about human behaviour more than the heists. Why people do what they do; how they fall into the traps they do; why most don’t change. This is brought to the fore with the relationships between MacRay, his friends and his father. All of the supporting characters could have (and some have) fallen into cliché, but because they are fully-drawn and well-written, they are entirely believable. The naturalistic (and heavily-accented) dialogue is key to this. You get the feel of the characters without having to try, it comes across in what they say without having to be full of exposition.
As it is a heist film there are, of course, action set-pieces. Whereas the direction for most of the film is fairly intimate, in close with the characters, when it comes to the showier stuff, Affleck pulls it off with aplomb. The heists themselves are breathtaking affairs, and even though it is now the law to reference Heat when any film has criminals with automatic weapons shooting it out in the street during broad daylight, the comparison only lasts a second before you enjoy it on it’s own merits. No mean feat. He employs a range of angles without losing the coherence of what’s going on, and pulls you right in to the action.
Once again, Affleck gets the best of his cast. From the ever reliable Chris Cooper as MacRay’s banged-up father to Jon Hamm’s G-man, who could have become a lazy FBI suit, the type you see on screen all the time and may as well be made out of cardboard, they all deliver performances with depth. Jeremy Renner has been nominated for an Oscar as MacRay’s best friend, “Jem” Coughlin, the man with strong principles of friendship but a temperamental nature. Since Joe Pesci’s turn in Goodfellas, those roles of the hot-headed friends tend to garner the attention in a film like this, but honestly, although Renner is superb, Affleck is better.
His performace as MacRay carries the film, and it needs to. If you don’t believe in Affleck’s performance then the whole film fails. But he comes across as a leader of men; someone who has regret but isn’t bitter; someone who believably seeks redemption. He could leave it there and have a protagonist you could get behind but, most importantly, he doesn’t forget that MacRay is also an asshole and a vicious bastard. With that in place, it elevates him to someone you don’t want to take your eyes off. It’s as though his stint behind the camera has given him a realisation about what to do in front of it. Affleck is no longer so obviously trying to act and the smugness apparent in almost all of his films has translated into an easy charm. It’s a shame that roles like that tend to be overlooked, as it deserves attention.
There are two main faults with The Town though, one disappointing and one trivially annoying. The first one is the relationship between MacRay and love interest Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). It is rushed and so stretches the realms of realism. I count they have a total of four conversations and and one session in the sack before they are in love and ready to abandon their lives for each other. That relationship isn’t the central one, but it is the catalyst for the plot. As such, it hasn’t been treated with the same care as the others. The trivially annoying fault is a small one. The late, great Pete Postlethwaite, whilst giving a good performance as the utter bastard of the piece, Irish gangster ‘Fergie’, goes on another one of his accent jaunts. Rather than the Welshistani accent delivered in The Usual Suspects, this one hops around all of Ireland and the British Isles. I only mention it because it jars during his scenes.
If those could have been avoided, The Town could have been a modern classic. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that it is still an excellent, excellent film which delivers an oft-visited story in a way that’s fresh and enthralling. Affleck now has to avoid becoming a one-trick pony. He needs to get out of Boston for his next film as director and prove he’s the real deal.
One more thing. Did anyone else notice the nod to Daredevil at the end or was it just a coincidence I’m drawing too much out of?