Following his hugely successful (at least critically) directorial debut Gone Baby Gone I mused that Ben Affleck should give up acting and concentrate on directing instead. Based on the strength of his second film I’d like to add a caveat to my earlier comment that I have no problem with him acting in his own films, The Town shows that Gone Baby Gone was no mere fluke and marks Affleck as a major talent to watch.
Broader in scope than his first film, The Town focuses on the lives of the residents of the small Boston community of Charlestown – in particular those of a gang of bank robbers – and the effect of repeated exposure to crime on all of them. The plot of the career criminal trying to complete one last job is nothing new and the film is certainly comparable in focus to Heat (a subject I’ll return to later), but it is the particular interest in the community and how it functions that marks this out as a film to watch. Small details abound, many of the characters bear tattoo’s that mark them out as part of the community (one has the Irish flag with the area code on his arm, shamrock and Celtic writing abound) and the dialogue occasionally wanders into such a thick accent as to become unintelligible (although never for long enough to make the film unwatchable). The script (Affleck again had a hand in it) and unhurried direction create a real sense that everyone knows everyone else and more importantly what they are doing. Few films care as much about ensuring that everyone has a recognisable character by the time the curtain closes.
Away from this emotional family at the centre of the film Affleck expands his canvas to include a series of astonishing action sequences. They never stray into action-movie territory, retaining a close, documentary feel and often finishing as suddenly as they begin. The opening sequence establishes the four main players before we’ve even had time to really see their faces, indicating attitudes which will play a major part in the film to come. The action is never there as a set piece, everything is used to progress the story forward.
Once again Affleck has surrounded himself with an impressive array of actors. Jeremy Renner proves that The Hurt Locker was no fluke as the most psychotic member of the gang whilst Rebecca Hall indicates why she may be the next major English find. However it is the older members of the cast who stick in the mind the most – Chris Cooper has a single three minute scene that changes the rest of the film completely whilst Pete Postlethwaite completely dispels his nice-guy image to bring a genuine air of menace to the role of the local crime boss.
The Town is that rarest of films, a mainstream Hollywood film that allows itself to be adult-orientated (Public Enemies last year being the last one that springs to mind). The Michael Mann link is also obvious, the film (and the novel it is based on) owe a huge debt to Mann’s thriller. Whilst smaller in scope than Heat, the focus does mean that we care more for the characters. Likewise the action is slightly harder edged, less polished but more in-keeping with the tone of the film, but no less accomplished. If this film was released two months later there could be serious award buzz (thankfully it doesn’t look to be an award grabber, and lacks the preaching that can sometime mar such films).
Once again the closest comparison can be made to Clint Eastwood, both seem to share the same stately directorial pace, focus on character and on the horrific, psychological results of violence rather than the act itself. Likewise both act well within their comfort box (this is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgment that both play to their strengths). Affleck’s first two films have focussed on crime in a specific location and it would be interesting to see what he could do outside of this comfort zone – although based on the strength’s he has shown here the results could be interesting.