Much controversy still surrounds the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. DC Entertainment needs a strong Caped Crusader to stand alongside Henry Cavill’s promising Superman in the forthcoming Superman Vs. Batman or Batman Vs. Superman blockbuster, set for release in 2016. That movie will, in turn, be the make-or-break moment for the much-anticipated Justice League movie, with DC hoping to compete with the runaway success of The Avengers / Avengers Assemble and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With so much riding on such a key role, the decision to cast Affleck will not have been taken lightly. He has certainly matured as an actor and a filmmaker since the disappointment that was Daredevil in 2003, and let’s face it, every major figure in Hollywood has a Gigli on their CV somewhere. Maybe not quite that level of horrendous, but let’s move on.
For proof of Affleck’s abilities both in front of and behind the camera in the here and now, you need look no further than his Best Picture-winner Argo. But before his triple Oscar-winning political thriller, he had demonstrated his skills as a screenwriter and director with three fine pieces of cinema, which will form the basis of today’s offering from Yours Truly.
1997’s Good Will Hunting was written by Affleck and his childhood friend Matt Damon. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring the duo, along with Robin Williams, Minnie Driver and Stellan Skarsgård, the film was met with universal acclaim and was also a financial success, grossing $225,933,435 during its theatrical run, with only a modest $10 million budget. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning Best Original Screenplay for Affleck and Damon, and Best Supporting Actor for Williams.
Twenty-year-old Will Hunting (Damon) is a janitor at MIT in Boston. He’s also a mathematical genius with a chip on his shoulder. He’s discovered by a professor (Skarsgård) solving a formula, but isn’t interested in academia. Trouble with the law changes everything, and soon Will is discussing his abilities, but more importantly receiving counselling, from working-class psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Williams).
Affleck and Damon originally wrote the screenplay as a thriller: Young man in the rough streets of South Boston who possesses a superior intelligence is targeted by the FBI to become a G-Man. Castle Rock Entertainment president Rob Reiner later urged them to drop the thriller aspect of the story, and to focus on the relationship between Will and his psychiatrist. At Reiner’s request, noted screenwriter William Goldman read the script and suggested an alternative ending . He has, though, consistently denied the rumour that he rewrote the script, or even acted as a script doctor.
Castle Rock bought the script for $675,000 against $775,000, meaning that Affleck and Damon would stand to earn an additional $100,000 if the film was produced and they retained sole writing credit. However, studios balked at the idea of the duo in the lead roles, with certain studio executives stating that they wanted Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. At the time the young actors were in talks with Castle Rock, Kevin Smith was working with Affleck on Mallrats (1995), and with both on Chasing Amy (1997). Seeing that the two friends were having trouble with Castle Rock, Smith and his co-producer Scott Mosier brought the script to Miramax, which eventually resulted in the duo receiving co-executive producer credits for the film. The script was put into turnaround, and Miramax bought the rights from Castle Rock, before green-lighting production.
Several well-known filmmakers were originally considered to direct, including Mel Gibson, Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh. Affleck invited Smith to direct, but the Clerks helmer declined, saying they needed a “good director” – and that he only directs what he writes. Affleck and Damon eventually chose Van Sant, whose previous films, including Drugstore Cowboy (1989), had left a favourable impression on the fledgling screenwriters.
Despite the fact that the script deals with the commercial double suicide that is mental health issues and genius mathematicians, this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. Good Will Hunting’s strength lies in the amazing assurance of its script, and the backing both its cast and makers give it. Van Sant steers clear of unnecessary sentiment, opting instead to find the emotional reality and harshness within the story. Damon is superb, and Affleck equally strong. In a movie the exudes quality, however, it is Williams that provides both the heart and the highlight of the piece.
The Oscars, in this case, were both entirely deserved. This is one of the reasons why I love movies so much.
Affleck made his feature-length directorial debut with 2007 mystery Gone Baby Gone. He co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, basing it on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and Shutter Island.
When four-year-old Amanda McCready disappears, detectives Patrick Kenzie (the helmer’s brother Casey) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are brought in by the child’s aunt and uncle, despite the antagonism of the Boston P.D. and the bad attitude of the child’s mother.
Crime novelist Lehane is known for the acute sense of place and mood of desolation he evokes in writing of working-class Boston, specifically the tough Dorchester area where he has lived all his life. With the bleak but fascinating Gone Baby Gone – adapted, in some scenes almost verbatim, from the fourth of Lehane’s books about private investigator partners Kenzie and Gennaro – Affleck clearly took a thoughtfully subdued approach to the material. He sustains a concrete, authentic realism in what is, after all, his hometown setting.
It’s a major directorial debut, successfully combining the elements of a smart, intriguing police procedural with a distinctive Bostonian flavour and the psychological sophistication and moral complexity that distinguish the very best mystery thrillers. It also marked a stunning reversal of reputation for the man whose credibility plunged from Oscar-winning screenwriter and Hollywood young lion through ignominies like his performance in Armageddon and the obsessively paprazzi-chronicled Bennifer years. The climb back to creative respect that began with his almost grudgingly praised performance in Hollywoodland (2006) was well and truly complete.
The plot is labyrinthine and, on close inspection, depends on some perhaps improbable clumsy mistakes, coincidences and convergences. But the director and his co-scribe lay it out beautifully, coherently and heartbreakingly.
Of course, all is not what it seems and people are deceitful keepers of secrets and lies. The little girl may indeed have been snatched by a known serial paedophile, whom the police quickly identify and pin for the outrage. But the child’s pathetic, spotlight-basking mother, Helene (Amy Ryan) is strangely, obnoxiously unhelpful and obviously knows more than she’s saying. Academy Award nominee Ryan’s brilliantly observed, trashy character is a foul-mouthed boozer and user. Like Monaghan’s disapproving Angie, we are tempted to feel that wherever little Amanda is, unless it’s at the bottom of a quarry, she may be better off, and that her abductor or abductors, unless they are sexually deviant, may have simply beaten social services to the child’s rescue. Then there are the girl’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver), apparently the only people in the world who gave a damn about Amanda before her disappearance, who begin to look shifty, too.
There is no shortage of potential suspects in the local criminal fraternity either, whose possible motives for revenge add strong undercurrents of suspicion. The police in the frame – Morgan Freeman’s respected, formidable Captain Jack Doyle, who has a strong personal motive to solve the case, and his dodgier lead detectives, Cajun hard man Remy Besant (Ed Harris, giving expert intimidation and inscrutability) and bullish sidekick Nick Pool (John Ashton) – have their agendas and are clearly working at resentful odds with Patrick.
Patrick and Angie are young, which immediately ups the stakes and personal jeopardy for them. There are running comments on the former’s boyishness, which exacerbates the cops’ hostility and disdain. He lives and works by a somewhat romantic gumshoe code of honour which gives him a certainty about what is just and right. It is the more intuitive Angie who foresees what an unhappy outcome to the mysterious case of Amanda could do to them, both professionally and personally. She knows they are unprepared to swim in dark water, and she is proven horribly right when they find themselves neck-deep in duplicity, murder, sociopathic drug dealers, horrific paedophiles, enigmatic cops and puzzles that can have no satisfactory solutions.
Some way into the film a nerve-shattering plot resolution seems to have been reached, but there is more to come. Clues are there for the alert, but the revelations that emerge, one after another, take us to disturbing places we could never anticipate.
In another superlative turn (after his Oscar-nominated performance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, ensuring that he will never again be thought of as just the ‘kid brother’) Casey maintains an outer calm, visibly and vocally holding Patrick’s churning emotions in check, while microscopically suggesting Kenzie’s sharpness and overwhelming inner turmoil. Even in the seasoned company of Freeman, Harris and Madigan he commands the centre, in a drama that is compelling and demanding from start to finish. Pay attention to his opening voiceover, which is key to understanding why Patrick makes the difficult decision he has to live with at the end of the story.
Gone Baby Gone’s UK release date was postponed from its original September 2007 scheduling over fears of causing offence or distress with its inevitable reminders of the Madeleine McCann case (the child actress in the film, whose name happens to be Madeline O’Brien, does resemble the missing girl). But that tragedy shouldn’t overshadow this completely unrelated story. A superior, thought-provoking and haunting thriller of abduction, deception and ethical dilemma, this is a piece that demands strong debate outside the cinema.
2010’s The Town saw Affleck star, co-write and direct an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince Of Thieves.
In 2006, director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) brought the novel to producer Graham King. King in turn showed it to Warner Bros., who agreed to fund an adaptation with Lyne at the helm, and written by Sheldon Turner. After Turner, Peter Craig and even Hogan himself failed to craft a script that fit the studio’s requirement for a standard two-hour-long movie with a $37 million budget, by 2008, Affleck had been brought aboard the project, now titled The Town. He wanted to direct a movie “I personally researched and understood”, inviting high school classmate Aaron Stockard to work with him on the script.
Following a heist, professional thief Doug MacRay (Affleck) keeps tabs on bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the only witness who could identify MacRay’s gang. As the couple slowly fall for each other and FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) closes in on him, MacRay begins to question the life he leads.
Affleck’s second directorial feature invites certain comparisons to Good Will Hunting: both are about the restrictive nature of class pride, the push and pull of the old Boston neighbourhood versus the promise of a new life with a girl, and the burden of betraying lifelong friends. As if that comparison were not recommendation enough , this is also a terrific crime thriller, full of both compelling cat-and-mousery and full-throttle action, showcasing some of the most exciting acting talent around – including Hall, Jeremy Renner (who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination) and Blake Lively, alongside the ever-reliable likes of the late Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper. It also confirmed Affleck’s innate abilities as a director. Quite simply, this is essential viewing.
The Town’s ideas aren’t 100 per cent original – the criminal who wants to leave his bad ways behind, the kidnapper who gets involved with the hostage, and the neighbourhood overrun by a criminal fraternity who live and die by their own rules are all story cores that have filled up crime movies for years. But Affleck has an affinity for Charlestown, the one-square-mile district that accounts for 300 robberies a year, a place where the criminal kingpin (a creepy Postlethwaite) masquerades as the local florist, where even the children can spot a black FBI van surveying a barbecue and where closing the bridge is the best way to hem in a getaway car. This isn’t the big-time Boston underworld of The Departed. This is much more small-scale, homespun and younger.
The helmer starts his movie with a terrific set-piece straight out of the Point Break playbook. MacRay’s gang, a band of “Skeletors with AKs”, bust their way into a bank, the slick, well-drilled manoeuvres covered in swift, hand-held strokes but never to the point of motion sickness. None of the action in The Town is overblown or Hollywood-esque. A thrilling middle-act car chase takes place in narrow streets, more concerned with getting out of tight corners than flipping cars in slow-motion, and ends on a heart-stopping, very human moment. Affleck is particularly good at mounting short bursts of violence that end almost as quickly as they have begun. His fights are brutal and wince-inducing but always believable.
Yet none of this comes at the expense of the drama, which is credibly delivered by the strong cast. Renner, in particular, is a force of nature as MacRay’s wildcard friend Jem, a volatile, deluded, unpredictable presence. There is a scene where he catches Doug and Claire having a clandestine lunch away from prying eyes. As he pulls up a chair to join them, what plays out is tense, awkward and nerve-jangling, with Affleck the director having the sense to pull wide so we see all the dynamics at play.
In contrast, he draws the relationship between MacRay and Claire in tentative strokes. It’s one of the more miserable courtships in modern cinema, bonded by a shared experience that only one of them knows they share. It’s an interesting relationship, and Affleck and Hall give it charm as well as acting chops.
The other plot thread is the investigation into the robberies. In a film that asks you to empathise and, in some senses, root for the bad guys, it would be easy to paint Hamm’s Fed in the role of Agent Hard Bastard. But he does something more interesting, painting Frawley as driven and tough but also intelligent and quietly Machiavellian. His interrogation of MacRay is gripping stuff, two intelligent men butting heads, Frawley giving it maximum vitriol. Yet Hamm also shines in his grilling of MacRay’s ex, Krista (an addled Lively, with this and The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee putting the fluff of Gossip Girl well behind her): starting as a guy chatting up a girl in a bar, it turns into a master class in manipulation. This is nothing less than a demonstration of the powerhouse movie starr Hamm could become.
Of course, The Town is not perfect. Some of Affleck’s stylistic tics – black-and-white flashbacks to crime scenes, a slow-motion moment where a robber, in a nun’s disguise, catches the gaze of a small child – feel like affectations, and it isn’t as complete a picture as Gone Baby Gone. But it does confirm Affleck’s commitment to ambition, and his nostalgia for his hometown softens the hard-boiled feel.
Emotional, smart and muscular, this is a strong human drama that is a rare, grown-up genre movie, full of compelling character dynamics and a clutch of pitch-perfect performances. It also proved that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke, and confirmed Affleck as a major director in the making – a filmmaker who would be rewarded just two years later with a Best Picture Oscar, for Argo.
While the debate over Affleck assuming the mantle of Bruce Wayne - who has retired as the Dark Knight so he can focus on rebuilding Gotham – continues to rage, he is working on his next directorial feature, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Live By Night, which is due for release in 2015. Also in development is an as-yet-untitled Affleck/Will Staples project, which will follow a team of mercenaries who set out to kill a brutal warlord in Africa.
If this missive has shown anything, it is that Affleck is capable of far more than dross like Gigli and Reindeer Games, and that he has certainly matured as both an actor and a filmmaker since the let-down that was Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil. If I, as one of the biggest fans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, then so can most!
He has certainly earned his place as one of today’s finest filmmakers.