Some have long accused Ben Affleck of smugness. Indeed, I may well have used that very word myself, in a previous review to describe the rheumy-eyed actor's annoying grin and self-satisfied air. "Screw you, I wrote Good Will Hunting," is what his expression seemed to say. No, screw you, was the critical reaction – Good Will Hunting is the last decent thing you were in.
While his co-writer, Matt Damon, has gone from strength to strength, Affleck's career hasn't had quite the same trajectory. While Damon made the Bourne saga, The Departed et al, Affleck was making Daredevil and Gigli. Affleck, however, is finally catching up. With Gone Baby Gone, he announced himself as a director of considerable skill. With The Town, he shrugs off any possible “difficult second feature” hangover and delivers a film that's superior in every way. What's more he also stars and gives one of the year's best performances. If he's looking smug now, it's basically with very good reason.
In The Town, Affleck plays Doug, a bank robber for whom life could have been very different. At school, Doug was a gifted hockey player but he blew his shot at the big time, hence he's followed his father into the family business of high yield, high risk heists. When a robbery goes wrong, and Doug's best friend and sidekick, the increasingly unhinged Jem (Renner), takes a female bank manager hostage, Doug has to step in and control the situation. The catch is he then falls in love with the woman, Claire (Hall), making her a robber's unsuspecting girlfriend and the key witness in the investigation led by FBI agent Adam Frawley (Mad Men's Hamm). The plot then is hard to summarise without making The Town sound like a collection of crime cliches. What will Doug choose? His old life and an inevitable prison sentence? Or a fresh start with Claire? And if the latter, what will happen when he comes clean about his background?
Stop yawning at the back. You may have seen such dilemma before but rarely have they been masked with such aplomb, or turned into such an engaging, moving and frequently downright exciting film.
The performances are all excellent, from Hall (so subtle, so believable and improving with every film) to Affleck, via Hamm, Renner, Postlethwaite (as the power behind the crimes) and an unrecognisable Blake Lively as Doug's hard-living ex. The dialogue is frequently heartstoppingly beautiful, and Affleck steers the whole thing faultlessly, switching effortlessly from the poignant relationship moments to a balls-out final heist that should have Michael Mann looking over his shoulder.
So, initial promise, good looks, a few years doing rubbish films, then a marked improvement as an actor AND a stunning ability behind a camera. Ladies and gents, I give you Ben Affleck – the new Clint Eastwood.