Fitzgerald famously wrote that "there are no second acts in American lives," but Fitzgerald wasn't a film critic. He might have revised his opinion had he witnessed the somewhat spectacular resurrection of one Ben Affleck, who went from Oscar winner and must-have leading man to overexposed pop culture punchline in the space of about half a decade. Some of this was his fault (he certainly didn't have to make Surviving Christmas, or Paycheck, or that cameo in then-girlfriend J-Lo's music video), and some of it wasn't, but Affleck did just about the smartest thing he could've done--he went under the radar. Onscreen, he limited his appearances to compact character roles; off-screen, he cast an eye towards the future, co-writing and directing the critically-acclaimed 2007 adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel Gone Baby Gone.
Affleck didn't appear in that film, handing the lead role to his kid brother Casey (who did some of his best work to date). His directorial bona fides established, Ben cast himself in the leading role of his follow-up, The Town, another tale of workaday Boston criminals (this one adapted from the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan). The picture's ads were strangely schizophrenic, trumpeting it as the work of "the director of Gone Baby Gone" as if he's not the same guy doing chin-ups in the leading role, but hey, whatever works.
Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a theoretically smart guy who may very well have been born to the wrong father--a career criminal (Chris Cooper)--in the wrong neighborhood: Charlestown, a working-class area of Boston that's been dubbed "the bank robbery capital of America." Doug's crew is tight-knit and adept, as we see from their polished execution of a bank job in the film's opening sequence--but an alarm gets tripped, and Doug's hotheaded sidekick James (Jeremy Renner) takes manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) along as insurance. They get away clean, but James insists they keep an eye on the girl. Doug volunteers for the job, but finds himself drawn to her, almost helplessly. There's a connection; they like each other, and he finds himself imagining a life with her, away from Charlestown.
One of the savvier elements of the screenplay (which Affleck wrote with Aaron Stanford, his collaborator on Gone Baby Gone, and Peter Craig) is the way it acknowledges but doesn't really comment on the subtle class dynamic between the two protagonists--or how that informs their relationship. The contrast is right there on screen, the roughneck and the "toonie" (neighborhood slang for a yuppie). His attraction is easy to deduce; Claire is kind and classy, a living embodiment of a better life. For Claire, who volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club, Doug is a salt of the earth type, tough but sweet; Affleck, for his part, inserts a nice sprinkling of the blue-collar humor and dive-bar camaraderie that made Good Will Hunting live and breathe. There's a distinctive street-level poetry to the dialogue, a kind of gutter lyricism to lines like "If we get jammed up, we're holding court on the street."
If the Claire-Doug relationship is heart of the picture, Doug's tricky alliance with James is its backbone. Affleck and Renner (so quietly brilliant in The Hurt Locker) find the ideal note of codependency and exhausted brotherhood between the two men; Affleck is the weary Charlie to Renner's Johnny Boy. The entire ensemble, in fact, is close to flawless--the talented Hall makes the gunshy Claire fragile but warm, Blake Lively surprises with a trashily lived-in turn as Doug's usual go-to girl, and John Hamm is, well, John Hamm. (That's a compliment.) He's tough, smart, and entirely impatient; his interrogation room scene with Affleck, in which he takes on a mocking Boston accent, is priceless. Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite each only have one real scene of substance, but with guys like that, that's all they need. (A sidebar, though: Whether the fault of poor exhibition or my own dodgy hearing, the thick Boston dialects--while thankfully consistent and seemingly authentic--do occasionally render patches of dialogue downright unintelligible. Your mileage may vary.)
As far as his own performance, Affleck quietly reminds us that he is an actor of considerable but understated gifts, when not saddled with unfortunate dialogue and Bay-level direction. But he seems an uncommonly generous actor/director; in his two-scenes with Hall, for example, he usually seems more interested in showing us her reactions to his lines than his own close-ups saying them. In observing the quiet power of his own performance and the skill with which he draws top-quality work out of his collaborators, we can't help but reflect on the recent comments by Affleck's friend Matt Damon, who sees parallels between Affleck and his most recent director, Clint Eastwood. There's certainly a similarity in the two filmmakers' work (and not just in the obvious example of Eastwood's Boston-set Mystic River)--he's a smooth, assured, professional filmmaker, equally agile in character-driven dialogue scenes as in action sequences. His work here doesn't quite match his previous directorial effort; the film lacks the intrinsically compelling mystery elements, to say nothing of the climactic emotional wallop, of its predecessor. But his action beats are first rate, from the tense robbery that opens the picture to the taut, low-to-the-ground car chase midway through to the crackerjack heist and shoot-out at its climax.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The Town hits Blu-ray with two different viewing options: the original theatrical version, running 125 minutes, and an extended, 153-minute cut. Having originally seen the film in the theater, I took in the extended version this time around and found it to be only partially successful. About half of the additional scenes are genuinely unnecessary--extra procedural steps that ultimately slow the picture down. We also get a scene of reformed junkie Doug relapsing late in the movie, an expected beat that the film is better for doing without. But there are several scenes that flesh out the Doug/Claire relationship--which feels a bit compressed and incomplete in the final version--as well as hints of a love triangle with Hamm's character, which gives his pursuit of Doug an interesting additional edge. Victor Garber also gets an additional scene, which is always welcome. There is one editorial howler, though: they've put back in a scene where Claire asks Doug about his parents, but left in a later scene where she asks him again (presumably an addition when the earlier scene was cut).
The set also comes with an additional DVD, which includes the theatrical version in standard-definition and Digital Copy formats.
Warner's Blu-ray is already the topic of some controversy, due to their decision to forgo the seemingly no-brainer choice of using seamless branching for the alternate cuts, instead slamming both versions, in full, onto the 50GB Blu-ray disc. The consequently lower bitrates may give some pause, but I gotta tell you: a full viewing of the extended cut and spot check of the theatrical betrayed no obvious signs of over-compression. Yes, there are a couple of soft shots and slightly hazy scenes, most of them at night (a dark driving scene with Affleck and Renner, Hamm's walk-through of the second robbery scene). But, for the most part, the 2.4:1 image is impressive; colors are pronounced (particularly the heavy blues of Robert Elswit's evocative photography), skin tones are natural, and detail work is exquisite. Grain is present but not overwhelming, and contrast is solid.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track starts out a bit more subtly than expected, with rear channels somewhat underused in early scenes. But dialogue is clean and audible, and occasional environmental cues (traffic here, a barking dog there) are atmospheric. The soundstage truly comes to life in the armored car heist and car chase in the middle of the film; the eerie church bell in the rear surround during the heist gives the viewer chills, the squealing tires and crunching metal are distinct, and the cracking gunshots in the shoot-out are sharp. The showcase sequence, however, is the final shoot-out, which is a demo scene on the order of Saving Private Ryan's opening, filling the soundstage with well-aimed gunshots, popping echoes, and thrilling foley work.
French 5.1 DTS-HD MA and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, along with English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
The solemnity of director/star Ben Affleck's Audio Commentary may come as a surprise to those of us looking for the merry jokester present on the commentaries for his Kevin Smith films and Armageddon. But he's a serious filmmaker now, and while he may temper the jokes on this track, he does offer up some cogent commentary on how the picture was made, how the themes were put across, and why certain scenes were cut (commentary is available for both versions of the film). It's a good track, solid and informative.
Featurettes are presented under the umbrella "Ben's Boston" (30:25 total) as a series of six "focus points" ("Pulling Off the Perfect Heist," "The Town," "Nuns with Guns: Filming in the North End," "The Real People of The Town," "Ben Affleck: Director and Actor," and "The Cathedral of Boston") that can be viewed either during the movie or separately outside of it. They're all (expectedly) pretty slick PR jobs, but some insights--and decent behind-the-scenes footage--manage to seep through.
The disc is also BD-Live capable.
The Town drags a bit in the second hour, but even when its energy flags, its rather remarkable how cleanly Afflect pulls his story taut. There's not a surplus of spontaneity to it; the scenes unfold pretty much as expected, but even the flatter, purely expositional sequences have touches around the edges that give them an extra snap. Whatever its minor flaws, The Town is a fine-tuned, crisp piece of genre filmmaking, and proof positive that Affleck's last turn behind the camera was no fluke.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.