In a year full of super-serious Oscar vehicles with a captial “O” (think The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and/or True Grit) actor-writer-director Ben Affleck’s The Town is something of an anomaly: a strong, smart, successful little movie that appeased both the critics and the public. Still, when the film began cropping up on the precursor awards circuit and began to be bandied about as yet another serious contender for the Best Picture race, The Town begat a small backlash. Critics wondered if such a film – with gorgeously choreographed heist sequences, taut action, and a decidedly hard-scrabble milieu – really deserved to be considered as an “Oscar movie” and effectively killed the film’s chances in the major categories. Perhaps unfairly.
There are many positive elements to be pointed out in Affleck’s second directorial endeavor, following his popular debut Gone Baby Gone (which propelled Amy Ryan into the Supporting Actress Oscar race back in 2007). First and foremost, one must dutifully consider the power of Affleck’s commitment to the material and his steady execution of this vision. I would go so far as to say The Town is not only the hyphenate’s best work as a director and a writer, but also his finest moment as an actor. Blending into the Boston surroundings effortlessly, it is obvious that Affleck feels perfectly at ease within these borders. He knows this city, he knows these people, and his treatment of these subjects never patronizes or caricatures as the other two films about blue-collar Massachusetts released in 2010 —Conviction and The Fighter—often threaten to. Where The Town succeeds is in showing a modern-day class struggle in a place where hope is cheap and success is both coveted and elusive.
Leading an all-around excellent cast through their dramatic paces, Affleck scores another success. Jeremy Renner, coming off the white hot success of last year’s Oscar champion The Hurt Locker, for which he was nominated for Best Actor, was the only cast member from The Town to snag an individual Oscar nomination this year, as Best Supporting Actor, for playing James Coughlan, a nasty, plotting career criminal who is one part white trash Iago and one part Ratso Rizzo. As the torn, heroic golden boy soldier in Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq-set drama, Renner soared, and in Affleck’s film, he truly stretches his legs as an actor and proves that his success last year was no fluke. Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Blake Lively (Gossip Girl), and the recently-departed Pete Postlethwaite (Oscar-nominated in 1993 for James Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father) all add a touch of class to their key roles, Lively in particular deliciously shreds up the screen as a braying, plotting, distaff cinematic cousin of Ryan’s Gone Baby Gone heavily-accented bad mother.
The single misstep in the solid cast is unfortunately made by Rebecca Hall, who has been hit or miss since Woody Allen’s 2008 romp Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Hall does the best she can in a dreadfully-underwritten role that basically amounts to her being “the girl”. While the actress was given a much better opportunity last year to showcase her low-key talents in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, one can’t help wondering what she might have been able to achieve had her character been more thoughtfully conceived by the original novel’s author Chuck Hogan or by Affleck himself. Hall’s Claire is a local bank teller who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Affleck’s crew of Robin Hood-esque thieves come calling, who is kidnapped as security for the robbers’ clean getaway. Blind-folded and left on the edge of the sea alone, Claire is clearly traumatized by her experience.
Things become complicated when Affleck’s Doug seeks her out to determine whether or not she can identify anyone involved with the crime, and he begins to both woo her and stalk her. There is something very creepy about this part of the story, which finds a victimized woman falling in love with the man who is responsible for hurting her in the first place, but when the two characters embark on a relationship, and they wind up in bed with one another, Affleck makes a terrible choice to link Claire’s sexual gratification with flashbacks of being blind-folded and left on the beach by her captors, as though she is getting off on the danger and the trauma. It just feels gross.
Despite that one clunky misstep, The Town is a shot of adrenaline to the arm, propulsive, slick, and quick. Grossing near one hundred million dollars at the box office, the film has obviously won the endorsement of the movie-going public, as well as from most critics, but is this a film that should have been given more serious consideration for the year-end awards that it was being so aggressively pushed for? While the answer is no – and that is not meant to diminish what is so great about the popular, entertaining film—The Town, while not the Oscar bait it was being positioned as, still remains an iron-clad testament to the surprising versatility of Affleck, who is charismatic and competent, and who does a bang-up job in laying out his vision.