I gotta tell ya, it feels good to be right. I took a lot of flack a few years back when I absolutely flipped over Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” ranting wildly to anyone who would listen that it marked the emergence of a born filmmaker who would probably continue to knock us through a loop with each new movie.
People humored me, as they often do, but they paid no heed. Now “Gone Baby Gone” has grown in popularity, and Affleck has come out with his sophomore effort, “The Town,” to finally silence the last of the knee-jerk critics who couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea that an uneven actor like Affleck could be a truly visionary filmmaker.
“The Town” is no “Gone Baby Gone” — the material isn’t as potent, for one thing, and it’s missing the provocative, layered mystery that helped make Affleck’s first film such a treasure. As a straight-up character-based thriller, though, it’s hard to find fault with “The Town.” The story, involving a network of bank robbers operating out of the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, is compelling, and the heists are executed with verve and intensity. And as in his first film, writer/director Affleck displays a peerless knack for capturing the shifting rhythms and moods of a city. He’s been compared to a young Martin Scorsese in this regard, and in terms of handling an old-fashioned narrative with the steady confidence of a veteran, Affleck is also racking up favorable comparisons to Clint Eastwood. They may smack of hyperbole, but these praises are apt and richly deserved.
Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, a two-bit hood who once excelled in sports but now leads a dead-end existence as a bank robber. It’s a thankless profession he inherited from his father, and at this point in his life Doug is beginning to realize that the family/neighborhood roots he once cherished are threatening to destroy him and whatever future he could still conceivably have.
It is at this strange time in his life that Doug meets Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). It’s not exactly a “meet cute” — he’s wearing a Halloween mask, holding an assault rifle to her head, demanding that she open the safe at the bank she manages. Doug and his gang elect to take Claire hostage in order to escape, then release her unharmed since she can’t identify any of the robbers. As an insurance policy — and to keep his trigger-happy partner, Gem (Jeremy Renner), at bay — Doug begins to follow Claire, and who couldn’t have guessed that in the course of this surveillance Doug would fall in love with her, and begin to see her as his last shot at redemption.
Doug wants to leave Charlestown behind and start fresh with Claire. Naturally, there are complications: Gem, fresh off doing nine for a murder he committed to protect Doug, isn’t too keen on the idea of his meal ticket splitting town with a potential witness, and the big boss at the center of it all (a terrifying Pete Postlethwaite) is even less enthusiastic. Then there’s the ambitious and dedicated FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who will stop at nothing to bring Doug and his accomplices to justice. It seems that on the mean streets of Boston, redemption doesn’t come easy.
It should come as no surprise that Affleck the actor delivers the best, most nuanced performance of his (admittedly unimpressive) career. You see, Doug isn’t a very noble guy — he’s not a murderous madman like Gem, but one must be judged by the company one keeps. Yet despite his not-quite-intact moral compass, the viewer can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for Doug, and pull for him even when our own sense of right and wrong dictates that Doug must come to justice.
Renner, hot off the Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker,” steals the show as Gem, the sort of charismatic but unpredictable street tough who you’d love to have in your corner — until he inevitably turned on you for some perceived insult. It’s the kind of performance that bristles with danger, and in spite of his short stature, Renner has no trouble intimidating. Hamm (best known for his role on AMC’s “Mad Men”) and Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) offer strong turns as well, but are ultimately dwarfed by the stronger material provided by Affleck and Renner.
“The Town” may not be the “movie of the year,” but it is at the very least the best pure genre piece we’ve seen so far in 2010, and offers irrefutable evidence that “Gone Baby Gone” was not a fluke. Affleck must now be considered among the premier film artists of his generation — and no amount of “Gigli” jokes can change that.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.