It’s been thirteen years since Ben Affleck became The Celebrity Known as Ben Affleck, and every day of it shows on his face. His career arc is a familiar one, marked by the struggle to rise above the roles that get nominated for MTV Movie Awards and create legitimate works of art, but the twist is that it’s precisely his tabloid past and swaggering early work that’s allowed him to draw on the requisite breadth of emotion to become so convincing today. Maturity isn’t just age, but the knowing assimilation of youth. He was excellent as a washed-up George Reeves in Hollywoodland, and he knew how to play a figure leery of public scorn in State of Play. He brings that same energy to his role in The Town, as a criminal who’s been in the game so long that it’s become an unfulfilling, monotonous job. He moves with a hunched shuffle down streets he met with a bounce in Good Will Hunting, and he can convey everything from anger to worry without raising his voice. At 38, he’s finally grown up, and grown into his presence.
But if he’s at long last figuring out how to marry dualities as an actor, he’s only just beginning to do so as a director, and as a result, The Town is only moderately successful. Affleck’s love for his hometown of Boston is tangible. He thrives on the color and life of it all and is determined to capture its many fragmented angles on the screen for all to see. Yet Affleck’s problem is that his devotion for location can overwhelm his stated goal of telling a story. His film is set in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, purported to be a breeding ground of crime, and the film opens with ominous title cards about how the area has more bank robbers than anywhere else and how the career is practically handed down from father to son. Yet he closes with a card proclaiming that most of the residents of Charlestown are the kind of “good people found most anywhere.” Did he really think that a two-hour thriller would make viewers think that everyone in that section of Boston is a hardened thug? The disclaimer feels like a mea culpa, as if Affleck was too worried about some hypothetical, virulent strain of extremism that he had to make sure that Boston remained holy in the eyes of the audience. The Town is at its best when it focuses not merely on the city but on the people trying to survive there, yet the ending is just one of many moments when Affleck loses control and cares more about the buildings than the men and women who populate them. With just a bit more restraint, he would have nailed it.
Which is a damn shame, because the story itself is packed with some fantastic moments that show just how good a director Affleck can be. As life-long thief Doug MacRay, Affleck is utterly believable as a gunslinger who’s been popping banks so long there’s not even a hint of excitement left to it. He and his crew, including the recently paroled James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), rip off a major bank and wind up taking a hostage, manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), as an insurance policy before making their getaway. They leave her on the beach and escape, which is where the game really begins: Jim is anxious to scare her off or kill her to prevent her testimony from coming back to haunt them, but Doug is reluctant to do anything rash, so he takes it upon himself to shadow her and see what she knows.
This leads, perhaps inevitably, to a meet cute in a laundromat when he sees her crying, steps in to cheer her up, and successfully arranges a date for later. It was Jim’s idea to take her hostage, but it’s still a horrifying set-up to see her seeking comfort in the presence and arms of one of the men who had an assault rifle trained on her days before. Doug gets caught up in an amazingly messy con that’s above the level of even a career crook, and Affleck expertly trots the line Doug walks between feigned casualness in her presence and genuine fear of being found out. Affleck smartly doesn’t overplay the friction in these scenes, letting Doug’s conflicted nature and the awful truth about what he did to Claire provide more than enough juice. He also constructs a magnificently uneasy scene in which Jim interrupts the pair on a lunch date. Jim almost doesn’t seem to care if Claire remembers him, while Doug is doing everything he can to get rid of the third wheel and keep his two lives separate. There aren’t any clumsy soundtrack stings or predictable “Do I know you?” moments; it’s just a fantastically rendered sequence of discomfort working on several levels.
Yet there are major sections that misfire just as badly, most notably the role of Jim’s sister, Krista, played with a kind of cartoonish bluster by Blake Lively. Krista’s meant to be a rough, worn-down hoodrat of a woman — analogous to the brilliant role Amy Ryan inhabited in Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone — but Lively just can’t pull it off. Part of it is her age: she’s 23 and unable to project even a version of the world-weariness that comes easier to actors like Affleck and Renner, who’ve got the age and experience to make it believable. Krista’s a single mom, junkie, and general flake, but she never really feels like anything other than Blake Lively in a push-up top and extra eye shadow. Affleck adapted the screenplay with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, and though I don’t know how old Krista is in the book, I do know Affleck had free rein to cast her as someone old enough not to look like a child playing dress-up. (Plus let’s not even get into the ramifications of potential paternity rumors involving Doug, which would have put Krista almost into jail-bait range when hooking up with a member of Generation X.) Lively’s a lovely girl, but the role needed a woman.
Thankfully, the rest of the supporting cast is solid. Chris Cooper shows up briefly as Doug’s incarcerated father, doing quite a bit with a scene that could have been lifeless. Renner is equally wonderful: Jim could have been just a sketch of extremes, but Renner plays him with a glee of barely contained recklessness. Jon Hamm’s performance as Adam Frawley, the FBI agent working the bank robbery and hunting Doug’s crew, also avoids easy characterization. He’s a lawman almost more concerned with accomplishing the task than in doing right by people, though the parallel between his life and Doug’s remains mostly, sadly, unexplored.
The film starts to meander toward the end, feeling longer than its two hours, mostly because of that willingness to try and get everything in: Affleck wants it to be a crime drama, and a coming-of-late-age story, and a romance, and a thriller, and a few more. But when his focus returns to the core of the story — Doug’s turmoil over loving someone he’d horribly wronged and his battle between coming clean and giving into the life he’s made — the film improves markedly. Affleck’s got a strong eye for chase scenes, and he gives enough screen time to Frawley to keep him from feeling like ornamentation. The doubled game of cat and mouse, with Doug playing Claire just as he finds himself fighting off the feds, is what makes the film work as well as it does, but too often Affleck chokes off the story with overlong digressions and a draining penchant for worshipping his hometown instead of just filming it. With The Town, Affleck’s made a great film buried inside a moderately good one. All he needs to do is discover how to let it out.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.