Directed by Ben Affleck
Everyone loves seeing someone get a second chance. Okay, so not everyone, but the great mass of humanity does, especially when we feel like people deserve it. Usually, all that entails is getting to know the person and feeling like they aren't a prick, that somewhere inside they're just like you and me and every other regular slob punching the daily human card. The power of a well told story is such that it allows us to see from the perspective of someone who, if we didn't know them, knew only their resume, we wouldn't be that interested. And if ever there was a test of that notion, it's Ben Affleck's new film The Town.
Affleck is the star of the movie, and the director and co-writer as well. In The Town he plays a not-so-hardened, but tough enough criminal, Doug MacRay, who's family legacy is theft and heart break. As a director, it's his second feature, following on the heels of his critically acclaimed Gone Baby Gone in 2007. As a person, well, for someone who had great success early, before becoming tabloid fodder following a number of questionable roles and dubious performances and sensational love interests, it isn't his second chance exactly, but it still feels that way. And if it is his remaking, he's doing a hell of a job with it. The Town proves, beyond doubt, that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke. It is an efficient, crisp thriller with a surprising amount of humour and no logic gaps to speak of, no moments where you wonder how a certain plot hole was so conveniently filled.
When you're remaking yourself, it helps to have Jeremy Renner along for the ride. The Best Actor nominee from The Hurt Locker provides gravitas as Affleck's lifelong friend and burgeoning sociopath who understands only two things: loyalty and violence. Renner is a name you'll be hearing more from, by the way. He may not have the looks of Pitt or the range of Depp (he just may, but he reminded me here of his character in S.W.A.T.), but he provides a great deal of the weight of the film. One wonders what The Town would have looked like without him. Jon Hamm is here as well, as FBI Special Agent Adam Trawley, but his performance provides none of the nuance he displays on a regular basis for Mad Men, the multiple Emmy award winning show in which he is the lead. (It's a disgrace he hasn't won an Emmy for his work there, but in The Town, he is merely adequate.) The only other performance worth mentioning is that of Blake Lively, who plays Renner's sister and Affleck's long-time love interest. Whatever has been said about her, she is flat-out terrific here. I suspect she'll be receiving more than a few calls from directors in the near future.
We can all wax philosophically about Affleck's career – as I was leaving the theatre I heard the couple behind me discussing how much better he was as a director – but the truth is that he's immensely likable and remarkably generous, both as an actor and director. And like his character in The Town, it's easy to overlook his mistakes and cheer for him anyway. Still, it wouldn't be enough if the movie was bad, or even average. It's so much better than that. Without question, there are some movie cliché moments, ones that make you sigh if not roll your eyes, and there were times in the theatre when a portion of the fifteen hundred people sitting around me laughed even after a sequence of surprising violence. But the applause (it was a TIFF showing) after the movie was long and generous, much like the man who made it.
Second chances are as much about the way the story is told as the one who the story is about, and to that end, Affleck succeeds in motivating the audience to cheer for his MacRay, a criminal capable of nasty things, but one who desires a second chance. Make no mistake, The Town is populist fare, with shootouts and action scenes and witty dialogue, but you get the feeling that as much as we're cheering for MacRay the criminal, we're cheering Affleck too. If the response from the audience were any indication, it looks like the man we once called Bennifer is on his way, and I, for one, am excited about it.
***1/2 stars (out of five)
Copyright Stephen Burns 2010