If The Town doesn’t fully salvage Ben Affleck’s career, I’m convinced nothing will—or can. Affleck’s career was in a shambles after a slew of bad movies in the early-to-mid-aughts—starting with Daredevil (2003) and climaxing with the turkey Surviving Christmas (2004)—and overexposure due to his relationship with Jennifer Lopez. Ever since, Affleck has mostly kept a low profile, besides bit parts in a handful of small releases, with his biggest film project being his directorial debut with the excellent Gone Baby Gone (2007), a movie he didn’t even make an appearance in.
Now, six years since his last starring role, Affleck is back in the lead in his second directorial effort. The Town—a hard-nosed crime drama set in the seedier side of Boston—is very much in the same vein as Gone Baby Gone. But where Gone Baby Gone was more of a thriller with elements of noir, ultimately acting as an examination of morality, The Town is more a straight crime drama: part actioner, part thriller. But don’t let The Town fool you—this is not just another heist movie. Instead, it acts more like a character study, and a pretty heartfelt one at that.
The film opens with Affleck—as bank robber Doug MacRay—sticking up a Boston bank with his crew, all adorned in skeleton masks. As often happens in such movies, things don’t go as planned, so the robbers are forced—at the behest of Doug’s hothead friend and partner-in-crime James (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker)—to take a hostage. In this case, it’s the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall, Frost/Nixon), who they soon let go once they’re free from danger. The experience is still enough to emotionally wreck her. Since the gang can’t know how much Claire witnessed while she was a hostage, Doug is forced to buddy up to her to learn what she knows, but soon finds himself falling for her.
The Town‘s plot mostly revolves around Doug and Claire’s relationship, while at the same time dealing with Doug’s attempts at breaking away not so much from the life he leads and the world he grew up in, but the life he is destined to be mired in. It’s a life he was born into, since the neighborhood he has lived in his entire life—Charlestown—is a breeding ground for thieves and criminals. His father (Chris Cooper), who was also a bank robber, has passed his trade down to his son.
The film trades heavily in crime-thriller clichés—from the FBI agent (Jon Hamm, The Day the Earth Stood Still) hot on their tracks to the one last job Doug has to pull off—but they’re all handled in such a realistic, unpretentious manner that it hardly matters. Even Doug’s need to start his life over falls into this category of crime-drama histrionics, but in this case it works in the film’s favor. There’s a sense of doom that hangs over the entire movie, one that you can’t help but feel the characters sense, too. Because of the type of film this is, we know that things aren’t going to end up nice and tidy for anyone and Affleck uses this to his advantage, ratcheting up the suspense every chance he gets. That Affleck has made a movie this nerve-wracking, while also trading in the basics of the genre’s truisms, is an impressive feat unto itself.
This is not your normal, über-cool attempt at a heist flick. Unlike movies that eschew characterization for style, such as the recent Takers, The Town is a gritty, sometimes nasty affair that’s short on cheeky cleverness. But while this is a movie full of shiftless people, there’s never the sense that we’re wallowing in muck. These characters are not to be admired, but there is an inherent humanity buried somewhere underneath. The movie trades in the distinction.
The Town is a well-crafted, excellently paced product without any wrong notes—a testament to Affleck’s shift to the director’s chair. The film is a professional bit of entertainment with enough intelligence for those wanting more from their thrillers. The fact that The Town gets so much right in an industry that gets so much wrong is admirable in itself. Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use.