CATEGORIES Theatrical Reviews, Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, Reviews, Cinematical
As an actor, Ben Affleck's name over a title has been a worrying sight in recent years. The 38-year-old's career in front of the camera has shown its share of promise - Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland, Chasing Amy - but it's just as often disappointing. For every promising performance, there's a Pearl Harbor, a Daredevil or a Gigli.
In his twenties and early thirties we might have forgiven this sort of batting average in favor of his rugged movie-star looks and that David conquering Goliath story that saw him and Matt Damon take home 1998's Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Hunting. But there's a point at which promise can be declared unfulfilled, and Affleck seemed to have passed it. These days, ask a moviegoer if they'd like to see the new Ben Affleck film and they're likely to recoil and make vague excuses about visits to the hair salon.
2007's "New Ben Affleck Film", though, delivered on promises we didn't even know he'd made. Gone, Baby, Gone, Affleck's directorial debut, came out of nowhere to deliver a punch to the gut. Here was a mature, adult drama directed with a skill that belied its helmer's limited experience in that role. It was a statement of intent: Ben Affleck has more to offer.
But anyone can get lucky - with a cast that included Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, not to mention Affleck's talented younger brother Casey, and with source material from Dennis Lehane, Gone, Baby, Gone had plenty of safety cards to play. With his follow-up, The Town, Affleck proves he's no one-trick pony. It's just as smart and well-executed as Affleck's last, and with him back in front of the camera too, it delivers on all that promise of Affleck's earlier career as an actor.
Set once again in his adopted home state of Massachusetts, The Town's action centers on the troubled neighborhood of Charlestown in Boston, where crime is rampant. This time around, the source material comes from Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves.
Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a career criminal who boosts banks with his friend, the loyal and dangerous Jem (Jeremy Renner), and their gang. At what they do, they're the best, but the weight of the authorities' increasing vigilance takes its toll and MacRay longs to call it a day.
When their latest bank heist results in a hostage and a material witness, the bank's manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), MacRay goes to track her down, but when he engages with her at a laundromat he finds himself asking her out and the pair start an unlikely relationship as she recovers from her ordeal and he's the shoulder for her to cry on.
He may well have been a little too careless, though, as FBI Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) narrows the gap, and what Claire knows about the gang threatens to reveal his identity.
What follows is an engaging journey to the finish, which is ever gripping and always tense. Affleck builds a film geared around its characters, and defines MacRay as a believable lead in spite of his obviously dubious career choices.
And that's what makes the film so ultimately rewarding - he's neither a hero, nor anti-hero. There aren't villians in the piece either. There are characters. Considering the scale on which Affleck builds the film, it never loses track of its cast of characters and it never allows their circumstances - tough upbringings, peer-pressure etc. - to forgive their actions in order to make them relatable. You're simply left to make up your own mind about them in spite or because of their choices. Rebecca Hall's Claire is probably the film's only true innocent, but while the opening minutes of the piece mark her as the victim, it's not long before her strength is drawn out.
Her performance is imbued with all of the talent Hall is known for, and she's amongst a supporting cast on the top of their respective games. Renner's Jem is the highlight: a character dripping with danger like a bomb just waiting to go off. Renner's skill is in hinting at secrets we'll never learn - filling a negative space to bring his character to life better than any line of exposition could.
He'd steal every scene he was in if it weren't for Affleck, who delivers the performance of his career as MacRay. On home turf, surrounded by some of America's most exciting acting talents, Affleck abandons all the trappings of Hollywood and builds MacRay as a battle-weary man well aware of his impending middle age.
It's all the more impressive when you consider his commitments behind the camera and the heavyweight performers he casts around him. There's no hint of any pressure on Affleck's shoulders - apart from that forced on his character - and he's able to draw from his co-stars' talents to complement his own.
What's most satisfying about his acting talent here is the overwhelming sense that it was always there, and that Affleck had for so long struggled to access it. Perhaps it was a failure to engage with the material he'd been given, or perhaps it took the experience of being knocked so often to tap into that potential. Whatever the reason, no one watching The Town need ever fear his name over a title again.
And as a director he crafts one the most exciting crime thrillers of recent years - a perfect companion to his debut feature and a real shot in the arm for commercial cinema. Affleck is clearly a talented director - one who can construct a compelling, commercial and adult drama without resorting to the cheap tricks that litter most Hollywood productions.
Here's hoping this talent leads to box-office success. Certainly, with the exception of its lead character's lack of a cape and a utility belt, there's nothing to suggest it won't find a huge audience. The Town is never less than gripping and refuses to insult its audience's intelligence. If Inception was a rare example of a smart studio movie this year, The Town is undoubtedly another.