Introduction to The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010)
Apparently, The Town’s out on DVD and Blu-ray this week. So here’s the text of an introduction I gave at Derby QUAD last October and totally forgot to post online.
It’s not so long ago that Ben Affleck was considered, by most critics and many cinemagoers, to be a washed-up joke. A major star in the late 1990s after Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love and Armageddon, the backlash started with his performance in Michael Bay’s bombastic retelling of Pearl Harbour and intensified after Affleck’s highly public relationship with Jennifer Lopez, a union that begat not one but two box office bombs in Gigli and Jersey Girl. Bennifer – as the couple was known – achieved the ultimate stamp of dishonour by having an entire episode of South Park devoted to them.
The irony is that Affleck, despite matinee idol looks, was never really intent on being a leading man. His breakthrough role was as the most unlikeable of the schoolkids in Dazed and Confused, and his most productive creative partnership was with leftfield indie auteur Kevin Smith. Such unusual ambitions became manifest when Affleck and lifelong buddy Matt Damon wrote their own screenplay, primarily in the hope of getting better parts to play. The result was Good Will Hunting, and Affleck sharing an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the age of 25.
Damon had the leading role – and the acting nomination – in that film, but producers seemed unsure in those days how to cast him. So it was Affleck who got fast-tracked to the A-list without any real career strategy, with the result that he often crashed and burned in poorly chosen, poorly realised projects. No matter that, in Changing Lanes or Boiler Room, Affleck was developing his craft as a smart character actor. What got noticed was the celebrity girlfriend and the lacklustre blockbusters: The Sum of All Fears, or Daredevil, or of course Gigli, which earned Affleck two Golden Raspberries to bookend his Oscar.
His career rehabilitation started only when Affleck abandoned the obvious heroic choices and selected more interesting, ambiguous characters. He won acclaim for his performance as George Reeves, the tragic TV Superman actor, in Hollywoodland, and gave solid support to Russell Crowe in the movie version of State of Play. It was between these two movies that he gave his most durable pitch for respect by making his directorial debut. Gone, Baby Gone (adapted from Dennis Lehane’s crime novel) achieved Affleck’s best critical notices since Good Will Hunting despite (or possibly because of) staying behind the camera.
The film’s story of a child’s kidnap, with echoes of the Madeleine McCann case, touched such a nerve that its UK release was delayed six months. When it finally arrived, what was remarkable was how restrained and unsensational the movie was. Assured, thoughtful and morally complex movie, Gone, Baby Gone grabbed attention for its performances (notably Ben’s brother Casey, and Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan), authentic sense of locale in Affleck’s hometown of Boston, and a delicate balancing act between genre thrills and smart character study.
Affleck, perhaps, had found his true metier – like fellow actors Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson and especially Clint Eastwood, the daddy of all such second careers in the modern age. Like Affleck, Eastwood was underrated as an actor, but learnt via close collaborations with his directors how to transfer the watchfulness of his performances behind the camera. Like Affleck, Eastwood chose a thriller as his debut, Play Misty For Me, and has primarily worked in genre movies since – mostly Westerns, although coincidentally, one of Eastwood’s biggest successes in the past decade was Mystic River, a Boston-set crime novel written, like Gone, Baby Gone, by Dennis Lehane.
Affleck, it seems, has paid heed to Eastwood’s example. Hollywood stardom is a cutthroat business and when an actor hits his late-30s, unless he’s absolutely at the top, the natural career progression is to start playing dads or police captains. Affleck isn’t quite there yet; he’s still only 38. But in contrast to those other actors-turned-directors, rehabilitation has had to come younger because of the speed and savagery of his post-Pearl Harbour backlash.
The Town confirms that Gone, Baby Gone was no fluke. It’s yet another Boston-set thriller, the town of the title referring to the Charlestown district, known for its Mob rule and copious violence and where, in tonight’s film, a team of bank robbers attempts to stay one step ahead of the FBI agents on their tail. As with Gone, Baby Gone, the emphasis is on how environment shapes the harsh realities of the characters; beneath the action is an elegiac, melancholic undertow of the devastating cumulative effect of a life of crime.
But the film shows technical progress, too, with action sequences that recall the best of Michael Mann, and a superbly marshalled cast that includes Jeremy Renner, fresh off his breakthrough in The Hurt Locker; Mad Men star Jon Hamm and fast-rising British actress Rebecca Hall. There’s even room for a spot of career reinvention for Blake Lively, the star of TV soap Gossip Girl and a regular fashion mag cover star, whose scorching supporting turn here, along with Renner, is generating significant buzz in the run-up to awards season.
Yet at the centre of the movie, Affleck has taken his biggest casting gamble: himself. His character, Doug MacRay, is very much centre-stage, a reluctant criminal hoping to escape the town but pulled back in by the needs of friends and the threats of bigwigs. It’s a leading role, but one with layers of ambiguity, and very much a model of how Affleck could continue as an actor in the Eastwood mould: gruff, taciturn, stoic and dignified. Let’s face it, stoic dignity is something Affleck ought to have in spades after the ups and downs of his career. Put simply, don’t write him off yet. Ben Affleck has grown up, revisited the artistic ambition that stardom had derailed, and so far, is batting an impressive average as a director. He might yet prove to be in the Eastwood league.