When Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, was released in 2007 trade bible The Hollywood Reporter called it "the best crime movie of the decade." Affleck, who was seemingly a beacon for critical abuse before the film, helmed a tricky story with remarkable assurance and showed real strength directing actors. Following up a film so well received was always going to be difficult, but with The Town there was added pressure because he was going to star in it as well. The Oscar winning co-writer of Good Will Hunting had made it back into tinsel town’s good books, but so far only as a director.
There was a quote on the poster for The Town that called the film "muscular." Generally speaking quotes are often pulled out of context, and are by their very definition hyperbolic; but that really is an apt way of describing a film that moves, delivers thrills, action and drama but doesn’t skimp on the characters. Affleck has also directed himself in his best ever performance - without question. There’s almost instant conflict with Doug MacRay; straight away you know that deep down he’s a good guy doing what he’s very good at - It just happens to be robbing banks. In Rebecca Hall’s kind bank manager he sees a girl who probably wouldn’t have given him a second look in high school - or maybe just to make sure he wasn’t stealing her bag. But the fragile relationship flourishes, and that relationship is crucial to buying the whole movie. You need to care about her character and get why Affleck would abandon everything - including a best friend that went to jail for him - for a chance of a new life with her.
The casting across the board is spot on, but both Jon Hamm and Blake Lively are excellent. The former injects his FBI Agent with the type of singular vision of justice that you normally see in Michael Mann movies. He’s a complete professional and a great foil for Affleck’s wily thief. Lively plays a rough Bostonian with a gusto and effortlessness that shows an actress with genuine range - remember, she is a Gossip Girl in her day job.
The real surprise here was how well Affleck handled the action. He didn’t mince words when speaking to me about that element of the production, calling staging the scenes “monotonous.” While the staging might be repetitive and dull, he has a genuine gift for delivering visceral thrills, and it was no surprise to see every studio in town go after him for their tentpole productions - he turned down directing the Superman reboot.Where he’ll go now in terms of material is anyone’s guess, but he does need to move away from his home town Boston to avoid giving the (now silenced) naysayers reason to grumble.
It doesn’t quite have the emotional reverberation of Gone Baby Gone, but The Town is an action thriller with rich, believable characters, excellent performances and well-handled action. Don’t bet against this one turning up in the Oscar race.