Oscar contender is Ben Affleck's second bite at a hometown magnum opus. Exhilerating and honest film about how children inherit the sins of their fathers. 10/10.
We all know Affleck the actor.
In his latest crowdpleaser and only the second feature he's directed, Affleck the actor limbers up like he's practicing Tai-Chi in slo-mo. He simply glides through his character Doug MacRay in The_Town(2010) like the hockey skater he is in real life; never breaking as his cameras shoot him unblinking through confession scenes.....daring himself repeatedly to spot past camera. Many good actors still can't do that, eg Javier Bardem in Eat_Pray_Love(2010). According to IMDb Affleck has "21 wins & 38 nominations" in addition to being an Oscar-winning cowriter of Good_Will_Hunting(1997), so it would be critically blunt (and a little uncouth) to charge Affleck with lacking acting ability at this late stage.
Yet we can now consider him a much better director than that. Of course, there is acting and there is "acting".
The furthest Affleck ever acted outside his perceived range was in Hollywoodland(2006), for which he won several Best Actor awards. He's also been an affable Man_About_Town(2006), but he turned in an utterly top-notch Holden McNeil for Chasing_Amy(1997). Touches of Holden now crop up in Affleck's painful confession to Claire Keesey(Rebecca Hall) in The_Town(2010).
The unmitigateable surprise is that Affleck, based on his two feature films, seems to have quite a VOICE as a director. Audiences can appreciate his contemporary-yet-timeless themes of children inheriting the sins of their parents--maternal and paternal respectively, so far.
He's managed to attract top-notch talent both in front and behind the camera, prime example being his Oscar-winning (There_Will_Be_Blood(2007)) cinematographer, now DoP Robert Elswit, whose fly-on-the-wall camera lingers in one scene on a fight, leaving the baby in the room to cry off-camera. Another throwaway beat was filming only the obliterated face of a coin-op laundry attendant, instantly telegraphing MacRay's inner focus on something else. Audiences are charmed by the intimacies set up with such carefully casual imprecision.
Affleck's powerfully divergent emotional reactions to each of his on-screen girlfriends, captured by Elswit, reveal the trust these two men have now forged. I loved Affleck and Elswit's portrayals of the wrung-out young lover struck by the wrong kind of sex--or life--he's having.
The wonderful Second Unit (Directors Alexander Witt and Dylan Tichenor, uncredited) also threw in everything from 10-inches-distant handhelds to helicopter shots, and zippy carchase masters which helpfully explicate the helter-skelter of skidding cars. This eye for editing is obviously thanks to the very talented Tichenor doubling as SUD as well as formally remaining the film's editor.
Moreover, the film is adept at using silence and electronic squeals to portend the stress of the violent robberies. Affleck and Aaron Glascock's sound design is effective precisely because the technique is now so little-used; but a film that adds orchestral violins underneath MacRay's visit to his father's jail quite deserves our hats-off.
Affleck's second bite at his hometown magnum opus also assembles a great cast, a gift for followers of his universalist films. Titus Welliver (as "local crimefighter" Dino Ciampa) is delicious even minus his mo' from GBG(2007). The camera just loves him, despite his not having enough to do. Pete Postlewaite is looking haggard, handing Affleck a welcome quip about 'Fergie''s features as an ex-boxer.
There is plenty for both genders to like, not least the coquettish tease of Blake Lively as MacRay's wasted ex-girlfriend Krista, despite the director being at pains to show drug mules "with no sense in their heads" like her will "always get used". Women on the other hand should sympathise with the exquisite trauma of Rebecca Hall's pretty brunette bank manager, at a crossroads in her life.
However, as action fans are bound to complain, this isn't wall-to-wall adrenalin; it's a drama-thriller only seemingly full of heist scenes. There are only three. During a second viewing I unfortunately sat next to a group of likely young crims who appeared to be looking for pointers! (I wonder if they got any.)
Instead, Affleck, Peter Craig & Aaron Stockard's authentic Charlestown screenplay adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel "Prince of Thieves"--about America's most bank-robbery-ridden square mile--effortlessly avoids The_Hurt_Locker(2009)'s episodic traps. This honest and satisfying film manages to deliver light-and-shade, stress, humour, deep drama, escapes, near-catastrophies, and banal scenes of poverty amid time-lapsed city-scapes and helicopter shots.
Affleck's thriller-drama is really a confident turn at bringing Charlestown's barely hidden "Irish omerta" underworld to life. The very contemporary relationships are honest and well-observed, never allowing even an unlikely romance to become overwrought, despite its traumatic inspiration. Action and drama are finely balanced; and the film thankfully takes seriously its observations about generational criminality. It must be said that the narrative does editorialise, especially towards the end, but coupled with an exemplary pace this only ensures its universal appeal.
The narrative pacing is so good because the director keeps most of his mysteries only for so long; the storytelling isn't manipulative (overly reliant on revelations). Affleck gives us enough information so we're unworried by unanswered questions (Who raised the surrogate brothers? Did the FBI find that print? Was the guy they home-invade the one throwing the bottles?) Occasional discoveries serve to advance the plot. For instance, we just know it was MacRay who left the note for the FBI, but FBI SA.Frawley(a too greasy Jon Hamm) then passes it off onto Claire's loser lawyer; a scene which produces the biggest laugh of the evening.
The distressing tone of the CCTV robberies is brilliantly underscored by the casting of Jeremy Renner, whose adrenalin-junkie screams are so reminiscent of Hurt_Locker(2009).
In even deeper homage to Yves Simoneau's 44_Minutes(2003), we see a street shootout with innocent cars driving in the police's line-of-sight; and....now I simply must blow a spoiler about the smashed jaw in the ensuring hail of bullets. I don't know HOW LONG I've craved a realistic GSW, but Affleck delivers it in style. His gunplay avoids the cinematic excesses of Heat(1997), but his well-adjusted action guarantees some ironic visual comedy, as first a little boy, then a lone cop in a black-and-white get alternatively mesmerised/gobsmacked by a carload of bankrobbers in creepy nun drag.
This type of organic (unforced) gentle humour turns out to be one of the best things about the film. Affleck's comedy is situational, logical and fresh, and always a surprise. It's wonderful to sit amongst an audience whose peals of well-tracking laughter release all their stress. Tongue-in-cheek, Affleck deftly has MacRay utter incognito concern for his robbery victim, then has Claire let him off the hook with "It wasn't your fault"--when it literally was. MacRay/Affleck gets to carry off bald-faced "innocence" in another scene with her that's almost too close to home.
Affleck has even learned lessons from his previous directorial success: this time he uses minimal sombre narration in the prologue (before the main title). There are no opening credits, a choice which can devastate narratively lesser films (eg Soderbergh's Che(2009)), but Affleck's conflicted gravelly voice does its job admirably. His brogue is that of a true Bostonian; perhaps he's plumbing some memory as Jem Coughlin(Jeremy Renner) pistol-whips his surrogate brother MacRay, to stop him leaving his criminal niche. Astonishingly, AO.Scott (NY-Times) finds this "Townie" relationship not atavistic ENOUGH.
Affleck has even stronger observations about neighbourhoods. What MacRay does to the local crime boss still trying to rule him through his "lovely new girlfriend" and his father Stephen(Chris Cooper, looking in his single scene every bit the Walpole lifer he plays) is a lesson to all victims of pyramid schemes.
Of course critics are now comparing Affleck to Clint Eastwood for Eastwood's similar dabbling in Bostonian generational crime with Mystic_River(2003). It's hard to decide whose source material is more credible.
Eastwood could conceivably envy the younger actor-turned-director for his easier road, but the industry has changed: directors are now stars themselves, and it helps if they're attractive enough to promote their films. Affleck is maturing into a similarly skilled, and possibly even more talented director with a voice at HALF EASTWOOD'S AGE; but fortunately he earns his directorial accolades in ways that, say, JJ.Abrams does not.
And yet I wonder whether (male) audiences will buzz as much about Town(2010) as they did over Inception(2010). This is the far more satisfying and honest film, but it's not terribly escapist. Instead, it puts us slap-bang-in-the-middle of our own lives: we all have parents who are disappointments, and friends who can put us in jail, or worse. But we're all responsible for our relationships, so "you still have to pay the price for what you've done, no matter how much you've changed". And that's as true of bank-robbing crims as it is of recreational Viagra users.(10/10)