Review: The Town
It’s not uncommon for budding filmmakers to tackle familiar genres as a stepping stone to more personalized and greater things. Spielberg did it with Jaws, a creature feature through which he managed to mine hysterical audience reaction and a bit of profundity. Ben Affleck’s The Town will probably not reach the enduring heights of “genre classic” that Jaws did, but it seems like a similar stepping stone for a director who looks to have the talent to produce something truly great down the line.
There genre here in the “heist” picture. It’s a tried and true “one last job” formula that this film doesn’t stray much from, and doesn’t need to. It hits all the requisite notes and maintains the appropriate pace for a highly entertaining thriller, with characters we’ve seen before yet enjoy and a structure that won’t force genre fans outside of their comfort zone. And while that rigid genre traditionalism may keep the film from achieving greatness, it doesn’t prevent it from being a first-rate entertainment and a harbinger of what could be a wonderful directorial career.
What lifts The Town above the usual Hollywood heist flick is the details, and that comes back to Affleck’s now-undeniable talents as a filmmaker. The city of Boston has been fertile ground for 21st century crime stories, with top-shelf dramas like Mystic River, The Departed, and even Affleck’s own Gone Baby Gone making good use the city’s fascinating socio-economic dynamics and its appealing blue-collar toughness. It’s been painted as a city cruelly and yet somewhat thankfully left behind in a previous era, where community loyalty still means something and where a person is more than the sum total of their gadgets and their Facebook friends. This may indeed by a grittily nostalgic dramatization (I’ve never been to Boston so I couldn’t say), but it makes for great crime cinema, and Affleck knows just the details to hit on in order to evoke this world’s unique flavor. His conversations of dropped ‘R’s and caucasian street bragadocio somehow always manage to ring true. His macho characters have their vulnerabilities but manage to mask them with violence, a familiar but effective depiction which speaks to Affleck’s maturity as a storyteller. He can honor this community while still criticizing it. Misogyny and dangerously strict street ethic make their mark on this world where bank robbery is just another trade, but that multi-dimensional portrait helps keep us sympathetic to the mortals who ply their violent trade in the confines of a suffocating social structure.
Affleck is perfectly serviceable as the leading man, and it’s not a huge surprise that an actor can coax great performances from talented performers like Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall (one of the current favorites), and Chris Cooper. The cast is uniformly excellent, even Gossip Girl pin-up Blake Lively as a neighborhood hussie more damaged and complex than she initially appears. What’s more surprising is Ben Affleck – the action meistro. The robbery set pieces in this film are outstanding, each one better than the previous. Affleck displays a firm sense of space and an appreciation of quiet and tension. He shuns the 4-shots-per-second hyperactivity that ruins much of modern action cinema, and also maintains a mature respect and disdain for the consequences of violence. Every bullet fired in this film has impact, every act of brutality made thoroughly unappealing. But it is thrilling all the same, the mark of a natural action virtuoso who can stand up there with the likes of Michael Mann and Jim Cameron in terms of command. With the held of great editing from Dylan Tichenor, Affleck shows an ability to let a set piece breath (a superb shootout underneath Fenway Park attests to this), and that’s just so damn refreshing. Combined with a keen humanist perspective and a sharp eye for detail and setting, this sets Afflect up as a directorial talent ready to burst into the upper echelon. He’s not there yet, but he will be. Trust that.
No fan of the heist flick should come away from this one disappointed. And those like me who have come to embrace the new Boston-crime-noir subgenre should be satisfied as well. What we have here is a damn good film, and one that points in the direction of future greatness for its talented director.