Ben Affleck has a bone to pick with America. Apparently, somewhere along the way during a decade and a half of crappy performances (Pearl Harbor, Jersey Girl) in sloppy bomb-ass movies (Daredevil, Paycheck) Affleck managed to convince us that he was the laziest actor in Hollywood. I’m not talking Alfred Molina munching the scenery while shucking phony accents lazy. I’m talking full-on, Christian Bale stern-face / raspy-voice negligence. But that’s the thing. Affleck isn’t a bad actor. Anyone who’s seen his momentary performance in Good Will Hunting will tell you that there is a competent and compelling performer in there, lying dormant, waiting to strike. The Town is Affleck’s moment to shine, as both actor and director, proving to the world that he is a captivating creative mind, in spite of the mountains of evidence otherwise.
Maybe Affleck is only a decent actor when he has a decent director to propel his performance. Kevin Smith couldn’t do it, and I don’t think anyone expects Michael Bay to coach an actor out of anything other than a blouse. Shocking but true- Affleck’s performance is one of several incredible performances housed within The Town, meaning the dude can coax it out of a number of unlikely sources. As a lead, Affleck provides the viewer with a complex and emotionally believable character (for the first time ever!). I don’t think that anyone would expect any less from Jeremy Renner, but it’s clear that Affleck’s influence pushes Renner to some incredible and interesting pressure points throughout the story. Rebecca Hall delivers an emotionally honest and startlingly human performance here, and perhaps most bizarrely, Gossip Girl‘s Blake Lively seems incapable of crafting anything short of masterful within the thin context of what she’s given. Only Jon Hamm delivers a performance under par (compared to his normal work on the tele-box) and it’s clearly the exception that proves the rule.Affleck’s ability to coach his actors is skillful, but his directorial eye is even more so. Affleck lovingly apes Clint Eastwood’s visual style, making The Town a movie filled with well-shot sequences and occasionally beautiful framing. Either Affleck’s cinematographer is a talent on autopilot or equal parts of the director’s skill went into harnessing human drama and unleashing it onto the audience with calculated camera maneuvers. I was sincerely impressed with Affleck’s ease of storytelling and the fact that his acting/directing combo never felt forced or self-indulgent. He manages to tell a story in which he’s basically in every shot, yet it doesn’t come off as masturbatory. That’s a difficult tightrope walk for any actor, but it seems more impressive that Affleck pulls it off with aplomb after phoning it in so many times before. I don’t mean to disparage the man’s entire body of work, but this is the titular douchebag in Gigli we’re talking about. The fact that he knows which direction to point the camera is a miracle.
The Town is a well-structured drama, but the performances are the only thing keeping it from feeling by-the-numbers. Based on the marketing campaign and subject matter, I thought the studio was simply going for a Departed knock-off here, but the two films are very different. Departed is an action movie with dramatic moments, and Town is a drama with action sequences. I personally prefer the tone of the latter, but I will say that the twists and turns of Departed would have been a welcome addition to the dry and mostly predictable story of Town. In spite of the story’s lack of memorable moments, I can’t help but note that this movie has some of the best performances I’ve seen all year (outside of Piranha 3D of course) and the story’s dramatic beats are a win-win affair. I could seriously watch Rebecca Hall have an authentic emotional breakdown all day, which probably means I need therapy.
The Town is without a doubt one of the best pictures of the year (helped graciously by the current dearth of quality films) but it is certainly a welcome reprieve from the entertainment shit-storm at the cinemas. Ben Affleck might only be a great actor when he’s directing himself, but if he continues to pick and execute his projects so skillfully, consider me his latest and greatest fan.