Back in 1997, Ben Affleck and his pal Matt Damon became wunderkinds by co-writing and starring in a movie nominated for several Oscars, one of which they won for writing.
They had appeared in several movies before then “ some obscure, some pretty good “ but “Good Will Hunting” put them firmly in control of their own careers, giving them the ability to do practically anything they wanted.
While Damon hasn’t exceeded that promise, he’s at least avoided doing anything embarrassing. Affleck, on the other hand, had a bit of a lost period.
Instead of steering his own course, he began playing movie star, appearing in widely panned tripe like “Reindeer Games,” “Pearl Harbor” and the infamously bad “Gigli.” For a few years, it looked like he would succumb to the consequences of careless choices and fade into C-list status.
Perhaps the lowness of his low point is what makes it all the sweeter to see Affleck fulfilling that early promise, continuing a return to form he began with his 2007 directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” by directing, co-writing and starring in “The Town.”
He stars as Doug MacRay, a denizen of the blue-collar Boston borough Charlestown, which has produced the highest number of bank robbers and heist men per capita in the United States. In Charlestown, heisting is a tradition, a skill passed down through generations.
Doug’s father, Stephen (Chris Cooper, “Remember Me”) was a longtime robber of banks and armored trucks, pulling jobs for a criminal boss known as The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite, “Clash of the Titans”). With Stephen in prison for life, Doug and his crew “ which includes James (Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”), Albert (hip-hopper Slaine, “Gone Baby Gone”) and Desmond (first-timer Owen Burke) “ plan and execute robberies for The Florist.
When we first meet them, the team is pulling a combo job, taking both an armored car and the bank it’s servicing. As a group, they have the kind of discipline and trust that can only belong to a circle of people who have grown up together. In particular, Doug and James are like brothers. There are specific rules, which each member follows to the letter.
That is, until things go a bit gunnysack, and James takes the bank’s assistant manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall, “Frost/Nixon”), hostage. She comes away relatively unharmed, but they later find that Claire lives only blocks away from the crew, making her a possible liability. James entertains the notion that she may need to be “removed from the equation,” but Doug disagrees and engineers a chance meeting with her. They become friends, and then more.
Over the course of planning the next job, it becomes increasingly difficult for Doug to keep his true occupation a secret from Claire, and to keep James off his back. It doesn’t help that FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm, TV’s “Mad Men”) is crawling steadily along their back trail, and is in contact with Claire over her abduction.
Affleck and company have created a near-perfect movie. The pacing, characterization and plot are so seamless that it’s difficult to find a crack in the armor to criticize. He returns to the same thematic well as “Hunting” in that it’s about a man who has potential, but feels constrained by the people and culture of the place that’s produced him.
While Will Hunting was having a hard time leaving South Boston, Doug has the same problem with Charlestown, but in a different way. He seems to hold some minor illusions that bank robbery is something of a gentlemen’s sport, one that can be left when you’re tired and want to play something else. As he finds out, the ties that bind run much deeper than he ever guessed, going all the way back to his childhood and farther.
As a director, Affleck avoids the pitfalls many actor/directors fall victim to: mushy pacing, sentimental exposition and self-indulgent monologues. From beginning to end, “The Town” is nonstop tension. You know from the first frame that these people are likely doomed. Whether they live or die, their way of life is fundamentally unsustainable, and watching it unravel is in equal parts fascinating and nerve-wracking. “Mike Robertson