When Ben Affleck and Matt Damon stepped to the podium to receive their shared Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997) few could have predicted where the success would take them. For the past decade and a half Damon has shined in artistically acclaimed films like Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Departed, and then catapulted himself into action hero megastardom with his turn as ‘Jason Bourne’ in the Bourne franchise. Affleck’s road has been rockier to say the least. His choices (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, Daredevil) relegated him to cheese ball status highlighted by his performance in the unfortunate Gigli (2003). In short, Damon became a star and Affleck became a punchline.
Gone Baby Gone (2007) changed all that. Affleck the director emerged and somewhere in the metamorphosis, Affleck the leading man has evolved.
The Town, directed and co-written by Affleck, is not only the best film of 2010, it is immediately one of the best films of this young century. And big Ben is front and center, sticking his impossibly square jaw out at all who once scoffed. Including me.
Affleck plays ‘Doug MacRay,’ a washed up hockey player “townie” making a living robbing banks and sticking up armored cars in Charlestown, MA (aka “The Town”), apparently the bank robbery capital of the world. His wingman and partner in crime, ‘Jim Coughlin,’ is a loose cannon ex-con played by The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner. ‘Coughlin’s’ family took young ‘Doug’ in when ‘Doug’s’ mother disappeared and his father (Chris Cooper) went to prison. So, while ‘Doug’ is looking for that cliché “one last job” before he splits for retirement in sunny Florida, he is emotionally anchored to the Town. To complicate matters further, he has also fallen in love with a fresh faced bank manager (Rebecca Hall) whom ‘Coughlin’ spontaneously took hostage in the film’s setup heist.
So there’s the story. Nothing all that original. So…what makes The Town so damn good? Affleck’s confident direction. The first advice writers get is to “write what you know.” The same advice works for filmmakers. Affleck clearly knows not only this milieu, he knows these characters and feels their pain. The strongest thread in the film is the thread of family loyalty. ‘Doug’ longs for the mother he barely knew, struggles with the inevitability of his father’s plight in prison, resents the pull from his ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively) and her small child, but mostly battles his guilt from the realization he has outgrown not only his best friend, but the neighborhood they grew up in. Affleck takes all of this on with an assured gusto, both in his performance and his direction.
Renner benefits greatly from the script and gets some of the film’s best lines. How is this for foreshadowing a Butch & Sundance fate: “If we get jammed up we’re holding court on the street.” If The Hurt Locker (2009) was Renner’s coming out party, The Town is his exclamation point. Renner has landed comfortably into his skin as an actor and his focus, intensity, and playful explosiveness are on full display here.
Mad Men fans will be happy to learn that John Hamm is also up to the task. Hamm plays FBI agent ‘Adam Frawley,’ a straight-shooting, smooth-talking fed who takes great offense to the brazen shenanigans of ‘MacRay’s’ bank robbing crew. While the role is right in Hamm’s wheelhouse, playing to many of the strengths that make MM’s ‘Don Draper’ so tantalizingly rich, this is nonetheless a confirmation of a successful transition from the small screen to the big. The same is true for Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively. It is hard not to be reminded of a young Ellen Barkin – the crooked grin and smoldering sexuality – but I don’t think even Barkin could have whispered the rhetorical line “Why am I always the one gettin’ used” with the same heartbroken self-pity that Lively serves up. Hamm’s cat and mouse barroom scene with Lively is a treat. “Boys like me.” – “I bet.”
Rather than compare The Town to the long-winded Michael Mann film Heat or the ridiculously over-praised Scorsese Oscar winner The Departed, I was reminded more of films like One False Move (1992) and Lost In Translation (2003). That wonderful feeling you get when you can sink a little deeper into your theatre seat and sigh with the knowledge you are in the capable hands of a storyteller who knows his story.
Now, how perfect would it be to see Affleck step to the podium once again, this time Damon-free, accept his Oscar for Best Director and say, jaw firmly jutted, “How do you like them apples?”