The Cinema of Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck has accumulated a few reputations during his career and most of them are as unflattering as they are deserved. Unfortunately, the title he deserves most but has yet to receive from the public is that of respected filmmaker. It’s not a mystery why. James Gray was never a drunken heartthrob that made girls nervous and guys angry, even as they mimicked his every mannerism. James Gray was also never an actor and never found himself on the cover of YM Magazine. No one cared if James Gray made it back from an about-to-explode asteroid and maybe that’s why he’s considered an artist. That’s not to say Gray didn’t earn his reputation, it just sheds light on why Ben Affleck might never receive the credit he deserves.

Affleck’s filmography is short but already miles longer than many other auteurs that are cited by cinephiles as important. Don’t forget, Affleck is both a writer and director, a creator of personal cinema that features characters that just as easily could have been dreamt up by Emile Zola, a 19th century writer who also unapologetically shared his first hand experience of the lower classes. It’s true that he’s seen his share of success at the Academy Awards, but Oscars tend to only boost the reputations of those already respected. In Affleck’s case, the gold statue is just a highlight of how meaningless awards are and the movies that win them.

Taking a look at the movies it becomes evident just how important Ben Affleck is to the cinematic sphere. The Hollywood ocean is one of big budget cartoons and “personal” films that border the wrong side of pretention. Affleck creates movies that get people excited about the real world around them. The movie industry became important when it started creating worlds that audiences could believe, even if they weren’t very believable, and few directors reflect that culture of cinema today. Ben Affleck is one of those directors.

Gone Baby Gone –

Synopsis: Two Boston area detectives investigate a little girl's kidnapping, which ultimately turns into a crisis both professionally and personally.

If Affleck never made another movie, Gone Baby Gone would be enough to land him in the upper pantheon of filmmakers. He took a risk making this particular movie, about a PI searching for a missing girl, but because of how masterfully he navigated the story, setting and characters, audiences never had the chance to notice.

The private investigator genre was a cornerstone of Hollywood’s golden age, but unfortunately has more or less fallen by the wayside. Sure every now and again we get a glimpse at how interesting a story can be about a person searching for something that might not even be important to the story. But then again, every once in a while we get a western too. These movies are the exception, not the rule. Maybe it’s because the PI industry was a premonition for what’s currently happening within the newspaper industry, a dinosaur that can’t be kept alive on nostalgia alone. The classic gumshoe was replaced by technology and the camera hates the digital revolution. While all of this is true, the movie doesn’t feature a single building block that feels anachronistic.

Casey Affleck in The Town

Gone Baby Gone proves that the PI genre can be just as important in the modern world, with our many unfortunate modern problems, as it was back in the 30’s and 40’s. And although most of us have never even come across an ad for an investigator, at least not one handling matters outside of divorce, Affleck has us believing that Patrick Kenzie makes a real living playing Philip Marlowe on the streets of Boston. Patrick, played perfectly by Affleck’s own brother Casey, is no Jake Gittes from Chinatown, and that’s the point. Updating a genre is about taking the core elements of why the original films were so important and dressing them up in the modern world. Bad things happen and sometimes it takes people living on the edge of bad to figure out why. While fedoras have been replaced with cellphones and track jackets, the tragically bad unfortunately remains the same and Affleck displays that with intensity and grit and most importantly, humanity.

No, a police detective movie is not the same as a private detective movie, for the same reason Batman and Jim Gordon aren’t interchangeable. A private eye lives in the grey zone and makes it impossible to figure out what side of the law they feel more comfortable on. Ben Affleck showed us why these movies are still relevant and entertaining and how they can still be believable. He did more than that, he created one of the greatest movies in the genre at a time when the genre was considered dead, and he did it with his debut feature. The same was once said about John Huston.

The Town –

Synopsis: As he plans his next job, a longtime thief tries to balance his feelings for a bank manager connected to one of his earlier heists, as well as the F.B.I. Agent looking to bring him and his crew down.

Jeremy Renner in The Town