Just when we might have assumed that Casey Affleck was the sibling with the greater talent in the family, with Ben best playing the role of slacker tabloid fodder, the latter steps up to prove himself—as director and actor—with the impressive, layered crime film The Town, his finest work to date. As a residual effect, the film also proves the folly of cinephiles’ glib assumptions about who’s who and who is capable of what.
Speaking of families, The Town takes its place alongside the remarkable, currently running Australian film Animal Kingdom (albeit not on that high level of artistic aplomb), as a study of the criminal lifestyle as it’s passed down, across, and through generations and family trees. Embedded beneath the vivid, and sometimes ultra-violent, surfaces of the narratives—and these characters’ hard-as-nails lives—are deep deposits of personal pain and tortured memories, enriching and thickening the plot beyond standard-brand bad-ass, B-movie fare.
In The Town, Affleck stars as the thuggish, but potentially rehabilitating, son of a thug in the crime-laden Boston area of Charlestown. For a “living,” the son is a cunning architect of brazen bank and armored car robberies, and part of a posse of scary, skilled robbers with awesome artillery, a will to kill if necessary, and a costume wardrobe which includes masks suggesting aghast killer nuns. As the toughest of the bunch, the amazing Jeremy Renner puts on the hurt in another startlingly good performance, in the wake of his career-kicker, The Hurt Locker, sometimes stealing scenes from the star.
The Town gains much of its expressive firepower through an engaging mash-up of perspectives, from the bad guys’ to good guys’ to the net-tightening FBI crime fighters’. We watch the story unfold from Affleck’s vantage point, and also that of his new girlfriend—an outsider “toonie” rather than a local “townie“ in Charlestown—and a former victim of his very undoing. She is also the source of his renewed desire to escape his life of crime. There are crime show in-jokes along the way, as when the unsuspecting new lover asks how Affleck’s character knows about the ways of criminals and he mutters, “I watch a lot of CSI,” not letting on that he is very much in the business.
Affleck puts himself center screen, looming large too often in the film, and his willfully low-key acting style can sometimes feel like a strange mix of Bogart and Adam Sandler. But what pushes The Town up and over into the realm of unusually sensitive crime films is its careful balance of elements: the grit, nerve’s-edge crime scene choreography and adrenaline rush we expect of the genre along with affecting aspects of the heart, and the palpable buzz of ghosts in the family closet.