Saturday, 9 October 2010
Remember Ben Affleck? You know, the guy from that Jennifer Lopez video? He was the anodyne, boyishly handsome one in "Pearl Harbour". The one who wasn't Josh Hartnett? He was responsible for some of the biggest laughs in "Armageddon", some intentional ("leaving on a jet plane...") and some not so much ("HARRY, I LOVE YOU!")? You remember him, right?
Well, he's dead.
Someone's killed him off and replaced him with a bigger, meaner, harder, smarter facsimile. This impostor writes and directs gritty, punchy, old-fashioned crime dramas and acts the shit out of the lead in his latest effort, "The Town".
The Affleck is dead. Long live The Affleck.
It may be a bit reductive to snipe at Affleck's earlier works, as he was certainly not without promise, but it is only since he stopped trying to be a movie star that he has begun to really flourish. "Gone Baby Gone" was an intricate and exciting little thriller, set in a grimly authentic Boston slum, and featuring solid performances from an all-rounder cast headed by a toughed-up Affleck. That was Casey, of course.
"The Town" is essentially more of the same. Set in a Boston district called "Charlestown", where bank-robbery is a vocation handed down from father to son, it tells the tale of a group of robbers who take a girl hostage only to find, after they've released her, that she lives a couple of blocks away from them. Affleck's Doug takes it upon himself to scope her out and see what she knows and, of course, they embark on an ill-advised and worse-fated affair.
The set up is rather typical, and the plot points and structure can feel a little formulaic - even coasting dangerously close to the old romantic-comedy cliche of "can a relationship based on a lie survive the revelation of said lie at the end of the second act?"- as events unfold in a generally expected manner, but this succeeds on strength of acting, dialogue, atmosphere, and some thrillingly mounted robbery sequences.
Affleck leads the cast with what is almost definitely a career-best performance. The movie-star charm shines through once or twice in the more romantic scenes, but for the most part Affleck is stoic, gravelly-voiced, intense and, let's be honest, FUCKING HUGE. He's always been a big lad, our Ben, but here he's buffed up to the point where he dominates the screen like some sort if human obelisk. When he tells his mate "we're going to hurt some people", you can fully believe him. It's not a transformation as extreme as DeNiro getting all fat, or a theatrical disguise such as Johnny Depp favours, but it is a subtle and brilliant performance, the greatest triumph of which is the indefinable moment when you stop thinking "That's Ben Affleck" and start to only see the character, a living, breathing human being.
He's ably assisted by future Avenger Jeremy Renner as Jem, the resident Joe Pesci in this group of Goodfellas. Though the character may be the stock Begbie/Johnny Boy loose cannon destined to go off in Doug's face, Renner makes him incredibly watchable, by turns jovial, sinister, coldly calculating and prone to explosive violence, Renner manages to keep him real. Of particular note are an excruciatingly tense sit-down outside a restaurant, and Jem's violent dejection at Doug's announcement that he intends to leave Charlestown, which leads to one of the most amusingly authentic fights I've ever seen on a cinema screen.
The small female presence in the film is equally strong, thanks to Rebecca Hall's confident-yet-fragile performance as the slightly idealised banker with a heart (she does volunteer work! She tends an allotment!), a role which could easily have become a cipher. Her English accent does slip through occasionally, but it is only a minor scratch on the surface of a very respectable turn.
Hall is backed up by someone called Blake Lively as Jem's sister and Doug's sometime fuck-buddy. Lively is apparently from something called "Gossip Girl", which I have never seen and probably never will, but here she is utterly convincing as a wreck-head single-mother, dressed like a cheap hooker and drawling her lines like she's not been in her right mind in ages. Judged purely on this appearance, she is a talent to watch.
The supporting cast is rounded out by John Hamm from "Mad Men" (there are people other than Christina Hendricks in that show? I was not aware.) and grizzly old Pete Postlethwaite. Hamm is sturdy, giving layers of intelligence and determination to another stock character - the dogged FBI agent - while Postlethwaite is, surprisingly, the weak link as a crime boss known as The Florist, delivering a theatrical performance at odds with the natural tone of the film. And his Irish accent's pretty shit.
Oh, and Chris Cooper is typically great in an understated one-scener.
All this performing is anchored by the sharp writing, fleshing the characters beyond their types and the genre's conventions, and an intimate and genuine visual style.
When things kick off, the action is handled in much the same matter-of-fact manner as the dialogue scenes, lending a sense of immediacy and believability to the frantic shootery.
So, it's a great character piece with some tense action built on a slightly cliched crime-drama skeleton, and a resounding confirmation of "Gone Baby Gone"s suggestion that Affleck is a director to be taken seriously. Well worth a peep.