Red lightThe TownSometime during the embryonic stages of Ben Affleck’s career, the actor-cum-co-writer-cum-director pulled off – whether he meant to do it or not – one masterful impersonation of a lost puppy.

Perhaps this was performed during an animal themed acting class improv exercise; perhaps the hot water had ran out at his place; perhaps Affleck had just listened to a phone message from Matt Damon explaining that while Miramax producers liked their triumph-of-the-underdog screenplay they thought its title, Good Dick Hunting, needed some work.

Remember what you were told when you were a kid about the day the wind would change? That happened to Ben. The lost puppy look stuck.

In the years since Affleck has made a pretty penny out of that signature countenance and also tried to escape – with various but typically low levels of success – being permanently regarded as a slightly oppressed looking Madame Tussauds creation.

His tactics have included growing stubble and signing onto projects of such low quality (Gigli, Jersey Girl) that when the ship inevitably went down nobody in their right mind could blame him entirely. He achieved momentary success not in a film but a music video of sorts.

More effectively, Affleck disappeared from the screen all together for his compelling directorial debut Gone Baby Gone (2007), a detective drama in which he skilfully captured the kind of grim tone and moral murkiness explored so well in Clint Eastwood films.

Affleck returns to the director’s chair in The Town, which focuses on protagonist Doug (Affleck) and his relationship with Claire (Rebecca Hall). Unbeknownst to her, Doug along with a few banking robbing buds briefly kidnapped Claire during a heist that takes place at the start of the film.

It is set in Charlestown, a place evidently known for its remarkably high “gimme all your money” related crimes. The story follows a similar trajectory to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), which also broke into periodic bank robbery scenes – always a reliable cinematic pick-me-up.

Affleck’s two films so far as a director have obvious similarities. Both are intermittently violent Boston-set dramas featuring straight talkin’ take no guff criminals and the badge carrying folk who endeavour to bring them down. Affleck showed some restraint by not casting himself in Gone Baby Gone, something he more than makes up for this time around.

The Town begins with a gruff voice over (Affleck’s) and not long later reveals its first close-up (of Affleck). There are extraneous glimpses of a shirtless muscular man working out (that’s Affleck). There are two sex scenes, one a cheap and nasty couch fling (with Affleck) and the other a deep and meaningful (Affleck again). And then there are those closing scenes, the story’s emotional epoch in which Affleck…

Never mind. The point is that Affleck’s grasp of self-restraint is gone baby gone, and despite its numerous qualities The Town suffers from being a blaring vanity project.

There are a number of particularly well directed sequences that lend more than a modicum of merit to the suggestion that Affleck may be more talented behind the camera than in front of it. Memorably there is a high speed car chase through narrow Boston streets and an on foot corker towards the end. However, the action scenes feel segregated from the story, tacked onto the masthead rather than appearing to grow organically.

Though Affleck shoots for another deep exploration of moral responsibilities in tricky circumstances, ala the ending of Gone Baby Gone, the gravity simply isn’t there this time around despite strong talent across the board. The Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner is excellent and cinematographer Robert Elswit, a long time collaborator of Paul Thomas Andersen, photographs slickly.

Affleck however relies too heavily on himself as an actor. His abilities in this field are – to be generous – limited. To make the role really resonate he needed either a different person, a higher voltage performance from himself or – better yet – a chance to reset the clock. A chance to start again. A chance to pull a different face and let it stick. Another day for the wind to change.

The Town’s Australian theatrical release date: October 14, 2010.

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