With the sharp and well-acted crime drama Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck proved he was a prettyboy actor who also had what it took to step behind the camera and turn out a functional film. Unable or unwilling to rest on his laurels, Affleck is back just two years later with The Town, another crime drama that shares the same lower-class Boston setting as Gone Baby Gone, but is bigger by nearly every measure. Featuring an enormous cast, numerous overlapping plots, several car chases and shootouts and even a stickup at Fenway Park, The Town is a bit overly ambitious and sprawling, but also quite a thrill. Not everything works, and Affleck's directing outshines the writing he did with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, but there's a lot to like here.
The short description of The Town is that it's about a gang of white trash Boston bank robbers, the women who love them and the FBI agents on their tail. The longer description gets a lot more tangled. Affleck takes the central role of Doug, a Charlestowne boy who tried to make good but got sucked into the same bank robbery career that's landed his dad (Chris Cooper) in jail for life. His volatile best friend Jim (Jeremy Renner, a standout in a crowded cast) is also his partner in crime, while Pete Postlethwaite's gangster boss pulls the strings and James's hard-living sister Krista (Blake Lively, stretching a bit beyond her reach) seems to lie wait for Doug to take her off into the sunset.
Except that Doug, under the guise of keeping up after a witness from their latest job, has fallen for posh Claire (Rebecca Hall), who of course has no idea Doug is the guy who held a gun to her head during the bank robbery a few weeks back. Their relationship is a major plot contrivance in a story that otherwise unfolds fairly naturally, but Affleck and Hall sell the romance, particularly once Claire gets wise and has to make her choice between justice and her beloved outlaw. Learning hard on her is ruthless FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), who's been after Doug's crew for years and isn't above faking evidence or being a general asshole to bring them in for good.
Yes, Doug agrees to "one last job" before trying to make his way out of the crime world for good, and yes, the entire story of a nice girl redeeming a criminal with her love rings off all kinds of cliche alarms. But the combination of fierce performances-- Hall and Hamm are also especially good) and well-directed action scenes propel The Town along this familiar path with gusto; Affleck and his cast prove there's always room for the same story told right. Behind the camera Affleck isn't just deft at handling hails of bullets, but infuses tension by playing with audience knowledge and expectations; one particular lunch scene, in which Claire meets Jim, is as nail-biting as any bank robbery. Occasional flashbacks and moments of lyricism don't add much to the otherwise gritty feel, but it's nice to see Affleck stretching out as a director, never settling for just a straightforward telling of his complex story.
Those layers of plot get the best of The Town occasionally--Lively's character in particular is wasted-- and the hard-boiled dialogue dips one too many times into clumsy plot exposition, but then, it probably wouldn't be a cops and robbers movie if it didn't. Affleck as an actor actually winds up being one of the weaker points, maybe a little hamstrung as the typical anti-hero, or maybe trying too hard not to outshine his co-stars (though the live-wire Renner would never have let that happen anyway). The Town never reaches the operatic heights of the movie to which it will inevitably compared, The Departed, but it's a solid improvement on the plothole-riddled Gone Baby Gone, and sports so many quality performances that miraculously don't drown each other out. It's probably time for Affleck to step away from the Boston criminals for his third film, but The Town is irrefutable proof that whatever he does next is well worth watching out for.
(Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival)