Affleck Hits “The Town,” Avoids Sophomore Slump
By Jacob Walters ’14, Contributing Writer
“The Town” may be looked at in the near future as the film which conveys an important and (to anyone who didn’t see “Gone Baby Gone”), surprising fact: Ben Affleck is amongst the most talented directors working today. I can understand your reaction to such a seemingly preposterous statement; five years ago, I would have laughed at the prospect of Ben Affleck exhibiting anything in excess of competence in any field related to cinema. (In fact, part of me always wanted to see him give costume design a shot, but we’ll have to wait to see where his career takes him at this point.) “Gone Baby Gone” was truly a surprise, though: thrilling, well-paced, emotionally involving and complex, with Affleck’s direction guiding the project to success. While, if pushed, I would choose “Gone Baby Gone” over “The Town” because “The Town” lacks the moral complexity of the previous film and doesn’t leave the audience with any especially meaningful questions to ponder after it ends, Affleck’s sophomore directorial project is nonetheless a top-notch heist film that proves that his success three years ago wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

In the opening moments of “The Town”, Douglas MacRay (Affleck), Jim “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) and two other long-time friends of theirs execute a plan to rob a Cambridge, Mass. bank. The excursion becomes violent, and the quartet is forced to take a hostage, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Soon after releasing her, they discover that she lives only four blocks from their neighborhood, which provokes the decision to trail her in an attempt to determine if she had spoken to the police and if she had given them any information. Jem offers to complete this task, but, due to Jem’s unpredictable nature, Douglas begins to follow her instead, which in turn leads to a relationship developing between Doug and Claire. The film can best be described as Doug’s attempt to balance this relationship with his commitment to his friends, the criminal acts he commits and, in a few scenes, what little relationship he still has with his father.

The strongest aspect of “The Town” is its ability to interweave character development with tension. In reality, the two are as dependent upon each other as any two aspects of a film can be, but so few films bother to set aside the time to create a lead character that we can at the very least understand, if not necessarily relate to. The relationship between Douglas MacRay and Claire Keesey is palpable and handled with a deft touch, but the film never loses sight of the fact that the relationship Doug is in is dangerous and thus entirely capable of creating tension. The scene which best encapsulates this comes when Doug and Claire meet at a sidewalk café, a scene which, in many films, would amount to no more than a throwaway cliché. The scene starts out nicely enough, but, soon after the meeting, Claire goes inside, and Jem takes her place. By this point, Jem is unaware of Doug’s relationship with Claire, and, simultaneously, Doug is aware that Jem is unpredictable and that Claire noticed the tattoo on the back of Jem’s head at the robbery and could use this to identify him. In a split second, the scene turns from a romantic encounter to an expertly crafted sequence that mixes tension from a number of different perspectives to create a situation that could conclude in multiple ways.

It’s also worth noting that the conclusion of the aforementioned scene isn’t necessarily the ending that you would most likely suspect, and this is another aspect of the film that subtly defies expectations. Approximately 20 minutes into the film, I was almost certain of the climax of the film, but the film nicely sidesteps this in favor of another, more fulfilling, climax. The concluding moments of the film also don’t play out exactly how you would initially expect them to, and this proves that the scriptwriters (which Affleck is also credited as, along with two others) aren’t afraid to end the film in a manner that makes sense for the characters and acknowledges the consequences of their actions. While the ending isn’t a downer, it doesn’t exactly abide by the rules of the cookie-cutter romance ending either.

In the acting department, Affleck provides a layered performance as the smart, capable protagonist stuck in a complex situation with no easy way out. Ultimately, it is him whom the audience comes to understand as he tries to continue his relationship with Claire while hoping to remove himself from the less-than-respectable world of which he has become a part. Due to the script, however, the audience doesn’t exactly sympathize with Doug, a smart decision on the writers’ part and one that leads to a more fully faceted performance from Affleck due to the complexity and humanity of the character. Many other films in this genre would have either made this character too falsely sympathetic or too cold and thus un-relatable, but “The Town”, as in virtually every other area, finds the perfect mix to define this character.

Rebecca Hall is also quite good as Claire, portraying the confused, conflicted love interest who in some ways becomes the central character of the movie, particularly near the end when more information about the crime and its perpetrators finds its way onto her lap. However, it will most likely be Jeremy Renner’s volcanic performance as Jem that will be remembered from the movie. While I feel this is as much a result of the script as it is of his performance, Renner is still perfectly on-point as the unhinged best friend, who provides much of the movies tension.

Prior to the film’s ending, there are a number of expertly executed action scenes which are successful at providing the expected high octane thrills and raising the audience’s pulse, and each of these scenes is well-staged, perfectly-paced and crisply directed to convey the sense of confusion and intensity inherent in the situation without losing the sense of focus and clarity necessary for an action scene to work. However, the only purpose behind defining “The Town” as an action movie would be to undermine its effectiveness by pigeon-holing it into a genre not known for quality drama or emotional involvement. With “The Town”, Affleck is able to interweave character development and romance with the more typical aspects of a heist movie, as well as some surprisingly funny gallows humor, to create a film that, while not brilliant, is nevertheless a highly successful and thrilling heist film. Even more importantly, he proves that, as a director, he is capable of handling these various elements and forming a cohesive whole from them without ever creating a scene that feels forced or unnatural, and, in doing so, he has emerged as one of the best younger directors working today.

Issue 04, Submitted 2010-09-29 00:37:10