Film: Ben Affleck: The Town (2010)

Ben Affleck’s technical expertise isn’t very sophisticated, but his skill at coaxing and allowing his actors to play their parts loosely, without affect, is extraordinary.  It’s not something I expected out of him before his first film, Gone Baby Gone – but in retrospect probably should have.  His earlier parts, in Dazed and Confused and Good Will Hunting, exhibit an effortless proclivity toward naturalism; he didn’t always get there, but it’s clear he’s always had an assured sense of comic timing and delivery, and an understated approach to drama that guys like Michael Bay and Kevin Smith careful weaned him away from.  He won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 for Hollywoodland, playing Superman star George Reeves as a self-conscious, self-serious actor consigned to a life on the dramatic B-list, and not badly (though hardly revelatorily).  And then he made Gone Baby Gone the next year, out of the blue, with a slew of fine performers doing some of their best work: brother Casey and Amy Ryan, veterans Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris.  It’s clear he buoyed his limited craftsmanship by bringing on Braveheart and The Thin Red Line cinematographer John Toll and Heat and The Insider editor William Goldenberg, but he gave them wonderful touches to shoot and edit, and the film works.  It’s not art, but it’s not dismissible.

The Town is not much different, in spite of hiring Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematographer and editor (Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor) – but that could be the best sign that as a filmmaker, Affleck’s got a deft hand and the self-confidence not to have to rely on his collaborators.  The script, which he wrote along with Aaron Stockard sharing credit with Peter Craig, is a little lumpy; it doesn’t have the holistic self-perspective to complete the larger social intimations it clearly wants to (a scene at an Narcotics Anonymous meeting seems to want to implicate society for its destructive ills, but The Town doesn’t revisit this territory).  But its scenes between Affleck, as bank robber, and Rebecca Hall, as the bank manager he and his crew briefly took hostage, show an unhurried desire to develop real intimacy between its characters.  Not necessarily sexual intimacy, but human connectivity; the film is earnest in a way that risks ham and cheese in its sincerity, and nearly fails, but I admire Affleck’s willingness to lend his film an inviting change of conventional pace – even if it leaves the impression that the script might have more fully developed other parts that fell victim to running time.

Whatever happened, The Town is magnificently consistent on the level of tone and performance.  Affleck gives precious little back story, but he doesn’t need to; his actors embody their characters with enough unself-conscious tact and conviction to get past the suggestions of personal motivation back story provides.  Affleck commands of his cast the kind of simplicity and certainty that self-justifies – you feel how these people live, how they smell, why they’ve got the attitudes they have.  They come across so well-formed that it’s almost disappointing when the plot takes over, as it sometimes does, and reminds you that you’re watching a dramatic construct in need of (or just desiring) twists and resolution.  And it may be Affleck’s comparative lack of directorial invention that keeps the film moving.  He asks nothing more of The Town than that it work, as a suitably-stretched canvas: a comfortable palette for the purer slashes of color and texture he’s aiming for.

I’ll be honest, there are strokes in this film I found mesmerizing: Blake Lively’s hypnotically carnal sexuality, abandoning herself to need with a druggie’s ease; Jeremy Renner’s focused aggression, sitting somewhere behind his soft bulldoggish eyes, that flashes without warning as easily as his fraternal charm.  Affleck and Jon Hamm, as the FBI agent pursuing the four robbers, are no less appropriately subdued, but they’re not as impressive, perhaps because their characters have duller edges to them; The Town is a showcase for the little things that elucidate real character, the switches that channel hot and cold blood (it’s nice to see ever-present chin stubble that doesn’t shout action hero as much as Boston-boy style).  Weirdly, Rebecca Hall has a very slight presence, for so crucial a character.  She doesn’t seem to be doing anything wrong, but it might be yet another measure of the film’s strengths that the one character so compelled to behave according to plot development (hers is the emotional core, the character most directly afflicted by the bad behavior exhibited throughout) is the one with the least amount of behavioral freedom. Unlike the rest of the cast, Hall has little time to riff or immerse; she’s got too many lines that turn the plot, too many beats that need to impact other characters, or be impacted by them.

As a dramatic vehicle, this is just efficient stuff, generating small waves of tension and moving right along.  It’s not the sort of film that will garner much attention, because most discussion of pop filmmaking resides at the level of story: what happens, and who does what.  The Town doesn’t have the fervor of Michael Mann’s Heat, the gravitas of James Gray’s We Own the Night, or the sheer audacity of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, but it does have a quiet confidence that its textures are worthwhile film substance.  I like its way with dialogue: witty but not writerly, sharp but not impervious to thoughtful delivery.  It’s a film not to get too wrapped up in, but to let wash over you, once or twice: a pleasant day at the beach, if never a Mediterranean getaway.  We tend to remember both, for different reasons.

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