While there is no doubt that Ben Affleck has a contagious sense of Boston pride that would make even New Yorkers want to start neglecting their “R”s and donning Red Sox jerseys, his films are not exactly love letters to the city. His past projects, Gone Baby Gone and Good Will Hunting, dumpster-dive into the sketchy worlds of Boston’s criminals, junkies, and low-lives. The actor/writer/director’s most recent work, The Town, follows suit, depicting a group of bank robbers from the projects of Charlestown. Although he has only two feature films under his director belt, the Triple Threat’s signature is not only legible, but also distinct. While some of his choices as an actor have been suspect (naturally, Surviving Christmas, Jersey Girl, and the infamous Gigli come to mind), as a director, Affleck shows maturity and, what is more, promise.
In the crime thriller The Town, Affleck plays Doug MacRay, the brains (and brawn) of a group of Charlestown criminals, who falls in love with a hostage from one of the crew’s bank robberies. But just as he decides to hang up his AK 47 and quit his life of crime, he is forced to complete a final job: robbing Fenway Park, the “cathedral of Boston.” Although the “one last job” plot has been done before (think Public Enemies or Heat), The Town never seems like a re-hashing or mash-up of previous films due to the strength of its supporting cast.
Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), who plays Doug’s impulsive and violent friend Jim, is the true star of the film, a gritty yet loyal character (loyal to Doug and loyal to Charlestown) that we fear and admire at the same time. Jon Hamm is not the dapper Don Draper we see on Mad Men, as he plays the scruffy Agent Frawley, an FBI agent determined to put the crew behind bars for their string of robberies. Blake Lively, in a departure from her wholesome Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants role, plays Krista, Doug’s coke-addict ex-girlfriend. Although the performance is flawed at times, the role is clearly a strategic move on Blakely’s part to demonstrate that she is capable of and ready for serious dramatic roles. Even Chris Cooper gives us chills as Doug’s incarcerated father, a legend in Charlestown for his crimes, although he has only one scene.
More importantly, like a skilled portrait artist, Affleck has the ability to represent the personality of a Boston neighborhood without reverting to caricature or stereotypes. In The Town, Gone Baby Gone, and Good Will Hunting (although Gus Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting, the film deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of Affleck’s work as a filmmaker due to his great contribution and influence as writer), Charlestown, Dorchester, and Southie (respectively) become supporting characters. However, these films share more than low-key lighting and remarkable aerial shots of the city; class-consciousness and an anti-authoritarian attitude reside in each of Affleck’s films, and we would need a Venn diagram to explore the many similarities between his works.
In The Town, Jim accuses Doug of feeling somehow better than the other crew members because of his desire to leave Charlestown, and even Doug’s sobriety becomes a kind of moral arrogance to his friends. In Affleck’s film worlds, any attempt to better oneself is considered a rejection of one’s background or class by the others in the neighborhood. Gone Baby Gone deals with the protagonist’s supposed economic superiority, while Good Will Hunting explores intellectual superiority. From this mentality, it is a short fall to anti-authoritarianism, which Affleck captures perfectly through his depiction of the Boston Police. Not only are the courts flawed and the cops corrupted in his films, but the BPD is portrayed as inept and clueless, particularly in The Town, where a cop literally looks the other way to allow the crew to escape from a robbery gone wrong. Instead, Affleck’s characters possess their own sense of justice, which they carry out in questionable means.
But if these themes sound familiar and over-examined, don’t be too hasty in discounting Ben Affleck as an auteur. Although he is continuing to develop stylistically (give him a break, he has only done two features), his work as a director mirrors his character’s robberies in The Town: well-planned, efficiently executed, with just enough room for chance and creativity. For my money, I hope Affleck’s Boston pride is for life. No need for filmic love letters to his beloved city—he isn’t Woody Allen now.
The Town directed by Ben Affleck; screenplay by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard; based on novel Price of Thieves by Chuck Hogan; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; original music by David Buckley and Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Sharon Seymour; produced by Chay Carter, David Crockett, Basil Iwanyk, Jon Jashni, Graham King, Kevin McCormick, and Thomas Tull; released by Warner Bros. Running time: 125 min.
Review by Melissa Cleary