I don’t usually follow the awards season, but occasionally it spits out some anomalies that are interesting. I’m writing this on the morning of 23/2/12, so I don’t know how the Academy Awards panned out, but I do know that Ben Affleck won Best Director at the Baftas without being nominated for an Oscar. Any time that a film is in the Best Film category, but not the Best Director category, it makes you feel like the direction was not a reason for the film to be good. I can think of examples where that’s true, such as Million Dollar Baby. Argo seems to me to be in the opposite camp, where I felt like the movie wasn’t that great, but I could see it was many flourishes in the direction and editing that somehow made the quite conventional story as effective as it was.
It was with that in mind that I checked out The Town, which I hadn’t somehow seen when it came out despite largely matching my interests.
The Town is about the leader of a small gang of robbers that have been successful because of their cohesion and their discipline. The DVD box claims that the FBI closes in on them while they plan their biggest heist yet, and while that’s technically true, far more screen time and emotional energy is spent in the FBI closing in while Ben Affleck tries to woo Rebecca Hall, a heist of a different sort.
While I can’t think of another film that has this precise combination of elements, all of the elements feel quite familiar and safe. In other words this is a film with a fairly basic plot chassis that will be made or broken by an accumulation of small acting and directorial choices. The likelihood is that it will be forgettable, just another action thriller. The possibility exists, however, that it could be one of those films that approaches something like a Platonic Ideal of the genre form.
When I think about other films that have seemed almost to be the perfect example of their genre, I think of The Transporter, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Good Thief, and The Maltese Falcon. These are films which in their basic story have been done before and since, but which stand out from the crowd because of the extreme control of the really small details that you barely consciously notice.
Their excellence begins with their plots, which are all perfectly fitted to the setup and characters. Then there is the dialogue, in which no word is wasted, but nothing that is necessary to say is unsaid. Find me 10 words of dialogue to delete in The Maltese Falcon: I dare you. The actors are perfectly suited to their roles: they don’t just act, they become the role, to the point where you can’t imagine anyone else. If my favourite game when leaving a film I didn’t like is to imagine the minimum number of changes I’d make to fix it, these are films where the challenge is to find the maximum number of changes you could possibly suggest without breaking them.
The Town, unsurprisingly, falls short. I am always saying that you need to judge films by the standards they set for themselves – and I feel in this instance, I am doing just that. There is an almost conscious invocation of other films and other actors in the key roles. Every scene seems like a reference to another film, with Affleck putting his own shine on it. That makes it feel like a film with the director consciously learning the tools of their trade – and the fruits of that learning are Argo.
In these terms, I must find fault with The Town, because it was not the perfect criminal underworld film. Jeremy Renner was unconvincing as the barely-together sociopath. Affleck is too affable, lacking the menace and gravitas to anchor the criminal half of the film’s story. Pete Postlewaite wasn’t creepy enough to pull of being menacing as a florist. I didn’t buy the chemistry between Hall and Affleck. The chase sequences lacked bone-crunching thrill somehow. Little shortfalls everywhere.
If your standard is perfection, well, this isn’t it. But there is still a lot to like about this film, because the shortfalls are only little. Renner can’t quite convey someone clinging to the edge quite so well as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, but the story does everything you want for and from that character – you aren’t going to be scratching your head at any point that something doesn’t ring true, or doesn’t make sense. All the bits fit together. And it doesn’t ever outstay its welcome: there are plenty of times when a lazier director would have let a scene roll on for another 5 minutes, or had a character deliver exposition. All the action is naturalistic and economical, and the characters say what you’d expect from them.
Affleck has made a really solid film that shows a knowledge of the genre without show-boating in the manner of Tarrantino. He shows the action clearly and completely, evadingt the shakey-cam messiness of a Greengrass. He manages to frame his shots and shoot his actors cleanly without becoming as boring as Eastwood. All in all, this is a craftsmanlike film, made with appreciable skills that have now already been used to make something a lot better. It won’t change your world, but this is a good use of 2 hours.