In the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, four lifelong friends – Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), “Gloansy” Magloan (Slaine) and “Dez” Elden (Owen Burke) – rob a bank and take the manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), hostage, eventually releasing her unharmed. When the gang finds out Keesey lives in their neighborhood, Doug decides to follow her to find out how much she may have told the authorities and ensure that the volatile Jem doesn’t take her out as a witness.
As the feds’ case, led by Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), against Doug and his crew intensifies, Doug finds himself falling for Claire and looking for any means available to cut his ties to his criminal past.
You don’t have to be a film buff or Hollywood insider to know of Ben Affleck’s rocky, inconsistent career. It started out fine with some dependable job security from Kevin Smith, and then received a big boost with an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay which he shared with Matt Damon. Then came the flops, almost as countless as there are stars in the sky, the most notorious of course being Gigli. To make matters worse, his offscreen romance with Gigli co-star Jenny from the Block was mired in excessive media coverage and used as tabloid fodder. However, after bouncing back with a supporting role in the criminally underrated Hollywoodland, Affleck turned his sights toward filmmaking. I was highly skeptical at the time. Quite frankly, two strong supporting turns in Good Will Hunting and Hollywoodland ain’t exactly gonna make up for Gigli, Forces of Nature, Bounce, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas - I mean, I could just go on all day.
And all that changed after seeing Gone Baby Gone. Of course, one could argue fluke, but his second stab at directing, The Town, which also featured him in the lead, erased that thought from moviegoers’ minds and proved his directorial debut was by no means a one-hit wonder.
The Town doesn’t standout as anything new. We’ve seen who knows how many heist thrillers before this, particularly ones involving the lead man trying to go straight. But as Roger Ebert once said, “It’s now what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”, and Affleck takes a familiar story and familiar character tropes and converts it all into one fascinating picture.
Hailing from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Affleck knows the Boston area so well (Gone Baby Gone was also set in Boston) he could film this with his eyes closed, showing the close-knit ties of the town while not shying away from its darker, seedier elements in the slightest. The overall sense of place springs to life within this film, particularly during a thrilling chase sequence between Doug’s gang and the cops that’s maneuvered effortlessly through Boston’s narrow streets. Affleck’s execution of that sequence is first-rate, and it’d quickly earn a thumbs up from car chase maestros William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer, the directors of The French Connection and Ronin, respectively. Between that chase and an exciting climactic Fenway Park shootout, Affleck shows how capable he is at constructing an action sequence the right way.
So if he is eventually nabbed to direct his first Batman standalone film, I’d say it’s in good hands.
But Affleck’s main strengths as a filmmaker are developing characters and drawing great performances from the cast he has portraying them (each of his three films have garnered at least one Oscar nomination for acting). The skill he puts into shooting, cutting and pacing his action scenes makes them thrilling. The skill he puts toward creating characters viewers can care about intensifies them even more. It also says much of the talent each of the cast members here possess that they’re playing tropes we’ve seen many times before onscreen (the “one last job” guy, the hotheaded but loyal sidekick, the hero cop, the love interest – pretty much every character from Michael Mann’s Heat playbook), yet it doesn’t matter ’cause of what everyone brings to these characters.
Although he’s seemed stiff in many prior roles, Affleck gives one of the best performances of his career (at the time, it was his best, but he’d go on to top himself in Argo), one that never comes off as showy or self-indulgent considering he’s both the director and leading man. Affleck wisely doesn’t oversell Doug’s hardened lifestyle, bringing enough charm and likeability to the role, and he shares a palpable connection with Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner, the very two people at the center of his conflict of whether he stays in the community-oriented Charlestown or leaves for a fresh start. Hall’s sympathetic presence compensates for the fact that her character’s slightly contrived. Renner, in one of his best performances, captures Jem’s suppressed rage perfectly while also giving him a touch of humanity through his loyal bond with Doug.
Filling out the remaining supporting cast, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is great as the straight arrow FBI agent who gets a scene-stealing moment with Blake Lively. Lively, clearly long past her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants days, eschews trashy theatrics and provides depth to her drug addicted, trampy Krista (not quite as good as Amy Ryan’s Oscar-nominated turn in Gone Baby Gone, but still a strong, against-type performance from Lively). Oscar-winner Chris Cooper hits a home run, and only needs the only scene he’s in to do so, and the late, great character actor Pete Postlethwaite, in one of his last performances, simmers with quiet evil.
The Town doesn’t reinvent the genre, and in lesser filmmaking hands, this would probably wind up being another routine heist thriller with barely much to offer. But Ben Affleck’s assured direction, and brilliant use of both location and a terrific cast turn this into one of the best films of its kind in recent years, a tense, gripping and sharply paced heist thriller that proves Affleck’s a filmmaker to be reckoned with in this day and age.