Affleck dazzles behind the camera in THE TOWN

September 20, 2010

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

The fine people over at the Warner Brothers marketing department proved their cunning while promoting crime drama “The Town.” Forgoing the obvious, they branded their trailers with the cryptic message “from the acclaimed director of ‘Gone Baby Gone.’ ”

Now, if you’re familiar with “Gone Baby Gone,” you might be wondering why the studio didn’t use the household name of said director. The answer is: that director isn’t known specifically for his directing, at least not yet. Because that director is none other than Ben Affleck.

It’s somewhat surprising — but completely appropriate — that the studio would let the mega-actor and inexperienced director rest on his credits and not his name recognition. No matter how much Affleck’s acting has been criticized, even vilified, he has yet to make similar missteps in his directing career. And while his name may bring up scarring images of “Paycheck” and “Pearl Harbor,” his modesty as a filmmaker is incredibly endearing and made commendable by the quality of his work in “The Town.”

The setting of “The Town” is Boston’s Charlestown, which apparently produces more bank robbers than any other neighborhood in the country. The film follows a team of bank/armored car robbers, led by the kind-hearted Doug MacRay (Affleck) and the trigger-happy James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”), while an FBI agent (Jon Hamm, TV’s “Mad Men”) is hot on their tail.

After a successful robbery, the team takes hostage bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) to fend off the cops. Once the coast is clear, they drop the hostage and let her live — but there starts the problem. Fearing she could help the FBI, the robbers agree to intimidate her into submission.

MacRay can’t resist though, and is so charmed by Keesey’s vulnerability that he falls for her. At that point, even though MacRay denies it, the story’s unraveling is all but inevitable.

The marvel here is the ensemble cast. It’s full of familiar faces, and every actor from Blake Lively (TV’s “Gossip Girl”) to Pete Postlethwaite (“Inception”) exhibits his or her respective character’s tragic flaw with a natural ease and a (usually) believable Boston accent. Even Chris Cooper (“Adaptation”) puts in a terrific one-scene performance as MacRay’s imprisoned father.

The film establishes a high standard for itself and at times its male leads seem like a mixed bag. Ben Affleck is still the actor Ben Affleck, and it’s become understandably difficult to distance his personality from his character’s. His Boston accent and token Red Sox attire hearken back to his “Good Will Hunting” days, but don’t make up for his simplistic approach to a complex character. He shows a fierce effort, without which the film would likely fall flat, but doesn’t considerably change up his acting formula.

Jon Hamm suffers from a similar problem in his role — he doesn’t quite fill out his character, allowing his FBI agent to fall victim to a campy script construction. He isn’t developed quite as well as his criminal counterparts and isn’t given as much freedom to show off his acting chops.

Rebecca Hall, on the other hand, is perfectly cast as the fragile Keesey, and her ability to make the audience quiver along with her is astounding. Likewise, Jeremy Renner is nothing short of awesome. He expands on his performance in “S.W.A.T.” with a new troubled intensity and wows with a bloodthirsty rage.

While “The Town” isn’t as tightly paced as its Scorsesian cousin “The Departed,” it’s a crime drama that succeeds on both the “crime” and “drama” counts. The film is a gritty, riveting display and avoids the cheesy pitfalls of its genre-mates. That each and every character, no matter how flawed he or she is, inspires an emotional investment is just as much a testament to the cast’s ability as it is a sign of Affleck’s talent as a director.

No matter how dark “The Town” is, it signals a bright future for Affleck’s filmmaking career — one in which his name might become a mark of brilliance and no longer a blot upon a film poster.

Leave a Comment