It’s that time of year when I end up seeing a bunch of crap that I’d normally ignore, but I try to get a jump on my unadmirable decision to see as many Oscar nominees as possible prior to the ceremony. The show is dishwater dull at this point, but as ingrained in me as the Super Bowl is for zillions of others; having witnessed what’s been deemed worthy of the statue allows me to bitch with authority.
The Town isn’t without its draws, including Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner. Additionally, Ben Affleck’s last directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, was pretty terrific. To the pluses, Hamm has proven over the course of Mad Men (and even in some very silly SNL material) that, in addition to beauty, he’s got great leading man chops; this season he’s gone from solid to great. He doesn’t attempt to transform and not look like himself, for which I’m sure countless women and gay men are deeply grateful, but his performance is believable and terse; there’s always more going on behind his eyes than remembering his lines. Rebecca Hall simply can’t be less than wonderful. She won me over in The Prestige (as did Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan), livens up Frost/Nixon and Vicki Cristina Barcelona considerably, and is just as expressive and true here as ever.
It’s also nice to see that Renner’s performance in The Hurt Locker wasn’t a fluke. The guy exudes ferocity, and if Dennis Perrin ever becomes a character in a movie, Jeremy Renner should play him. Both have a quality like the forest of thorns guarding Sleeping Beauty’s castle; there’s a light burning underneath it all, but you have to fight like a badass to get to it.
Affleck himself is a curious screen presence. As a leading man, the flat, linear planes of his face and his expressionless eyes are dull as cardboard. Let him bray through his nose in low Bostonian and he takes on a stony, geometric force, like a tomahawk. He’s cast himself well.
But it’s a mistake for him to try to direct himself; he has too much to offer behind the camera. In the tough and gritty Gone Baby Gone, he directed his brother, the weasel-faced and more talented actor Casey with laser surgical precision. Unfortunately, many scenes here visibly suffer from divided attention, and it seriously messes with Town‘s rhythm. A potentially wonderful scene between Hall, Renner and Affleck is all cuts to close-ups when a wary, circling camera would have forced the audience to confront the danger of the relationships; it’s a missed opportunity to heighten Affleck’s character’s precarious footing, as well as our degree to give a rat’s ass.
Affleck casts well and shoots one hell of a chase scene, which is an odd combination. He also resorts to cliches that he’s way too good for, like the overhead shots of Boston we’ve seen a million times, most recently in The Departed and Mystic River. This isn’t NY, where filmmakers can find enough angles to make the city their own, and the overhead view doesn’t really tell us anything new anyway; we get it, there are shitty neighborhoods where bad things happen in Boston, and everyone seems to want to do the Google map shot to emphasize exactly where they are (they all seem to be the same one anyway). And the tight cropping, where everyone’s scalp is out of frame, marries badly with quick cutting. He’s clearly loved by actors and gets fine performances out of them (just look at that cast, including the great Pete Postlethwaite in a small role); you just want him to give their faces a little room to breathe.
Finally, the script is just bad. Tough Boston crime guys feel very played. This movie’s surprisingly reminiscent of What Doesn’t Kill You, which I think was quite a bit better than either this or The Departed (which I will watch when it’s on, chiding myself because, really, it’s not very good), but it tries to do too much, touching lightly on half a dozen things when it should have stuck to a couple. Other than the fabulously creepy masks the characters use to rob banks, The Town doesn’t really bring anything new to the table other than giving Hall, Renner, and Hamm a chance to do something a little bit different.
Affleck can easily have some great movies ahead of him. He just needs to pick better scripts, probably stay behind the camera so he can direct – he’s fine in this, but was needed elsewhere – and start stretching his originality wings a little bit.