Monday, September 20, 2010

Mass. affection

The Town [****]

There are two Ben Afflecks on display in The Town, one is the poised visual stylist who in the space of two films manages to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of cinema's heavyweights. The other is the actor whose own rise and potential fall is echoed in that of his character, former hockey player and bank robbery mastermind Doug MacRay. MacRay like Affleck was raised in a single parent home, like Affleck enjoyed notoriety (Affleck as a screenwriter and actor, once upon a time, MacRay as a hockey player who blew two chances and now leads the fated life of a Townie-- a born and bred criminal) and through the love of a good woman and divine providence comes to a point where redemption seems the next obvious step. Affleck is enjoying his second life as an actor and receiving well deserved praise for his proficiency with a camera. He has also settled into the role of family man with a wife and two daughters, but both Affleck and his fictional counterpart play their roles with a tentativeness. As men who have had it all before and know what it's like to lose it all.

In many ways the ease with which Affleck has settled into being a director, a legitimately great one at that, has a way of calling attention to itself. If we can evoke comparisons to Michael Mann (The Town is Heat in Boston, after all) from a narrative standpoint and in the crisp, concise way he shoots action, for those reasons we can also draw upon Sam Peckinpah too. Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood for how quickly he established himself as a force to be reckoned with then we must acknowledge a debt to everything that has come before. Affleck the director can shoulder that burden, but Affleck the actor turns the film into a naked, emotional plea from an artist.

Most of The Town is spent with Affleck's character getting to know the woman he and his crew kidnapped during a bank robbery. She didn't see their faces, but knows one small detail that can send them all down the river. So post kidnapping he befriends her to assess the risk (which is fairly big as evidenced by the above sentence) and begins to fall in love with her. During one of their dates he cracks a joke about how all of his TV watching gives him insight into the mechanics of crime fighting. It's not the joke that matters so much that it's the first time Affleck has cracked a joke on film in seven years. His old charm and charisma begin to shine through, but it's self conscious, a tentative baby step towards the easygoing, confident Affleck of yore. The man is probably more loved now than he's ever been but now that you see his face it's probably easier to hold him accountable for the sins of the past so you don't let the smile linger too long, you remember that it's all a house of cards.

You might be wondering, how does his tentativeness translate into a plea? Well it's the first time he's joked on film in seven years and it's on a date. Saying the wrong thing could send everything crashing down, but he can't unsay it. It's out there to be accepted or rejected. The film's final image also offers up Doug MacRay as a character on the cusp of redemption. Affleck the director has a way with actors (including himself) and in the coda of his film he makes peace with who he was, but knows that what his audience thinks of him matters so he leaves it to his audience to unify the two halves.

But the part of Affleck that is liked and respected continues to flourish. Ben Affleck elicits flawless performances from everyone in his ensemble. Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Affleck and Rebecca Hall are all expectedly terrific. I also like the return of working class grit embodied by Slaine Jenkins as getaway driver Albert Maglone and Titus Welliver as a Charlestown bred FBI agent. His action scenes as previously stated are terrific. Crisp, concise, intelligible. Jeremy Renner's last stand with the police is evocative of Steve McQueen's shootout with the police in Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway. He's not anywhere near as stoic as McQueen or calculating but he goes for broke in a fairly hopeless situation and it's a thrilling sight.

When you get right down to it, The Town, more than being an exceptional acting showcase or action picture stripped down to it's bare essentials is a love letter. Ben Affleck has a way of framing his fair city in a way that gives it character, but also as the place that defines him as a performer and an individual.

If every city is drowning and all of it's inhabitants are just waiting to be saved Affleck is the benevolent God who will do so. Consider scenes from both of his directorial efforts: in "Gone Baby Gone" hero Patrick Kenzie has reunited a young girl with her drug addled mother and an uncertain future. By the letter of the law he has done the right thing and by the burden of Catholic guilt he has done the thing that lets him sleep at night. In his heart of hearts is it the right thing? Probably not, but it's an acceptable risk. Another hero is willing to make the same trade off with a similarly lifestyled mother in The Town and it speaks to Affleck's unconditional acceptance of the denizens of Boston and their myriad flaws.

One of the most haunting images in The Town is an establishing shot of the prison that houses Doug MacRay's father. It's desolate, lonely and cold reminding us that we live in a city of ghosts, but that ghosts are the sum of our experience. That being said the coda of The Town offers us the chance to reconcile with the ghosts of our past and anyone who hasn't taken the opportunity to forgive Affleck the sins of 2003 would do well to offer him the grace he affords his characters.

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