Who Is Ben Affleck?

By  · Published on October 12th, 2016

The utterly unpredictable career of Hollywood’s most complex movie star.

Here’s a little exercise for the next time you’re standing in line for popcorn at the movie theater: name an impending release by your favorite actor or director, move it around on their filmography, and try and assign new meaning to the film based on when in his or her career the movie came out. For example, Ben Affleck’s new movie The Accountant hits theaters on Friday. Move it back fifteen years and it’s a proto-Paycheck, Affleck still finding his stride as an up-and-coming leading man. Move it back ten years and it represents a significant leap of faith on behalf of Warner Bros. to revitalize a career that’s objectively dead in the water. And move it back five years and it’s a step back into the mainstream from the talented writer-director of Gone Baby Gone and The Town.

At the relatively young age of 44-years-old, Affleck already has three separate periods of work to his name. Hell, if we throw Batman v Superman and his commitment to DC Comics into the mix, he’s well on his way to a fourth. It’s a strange thing to wrap your head around. With most actors, you can write a generic timeline of events that leads them to Hollywood stardom. Take Michael Fassbender. At first he made a living in television shows and genre films while working on small art films with close collaborators. One day he catches the eye of a major filmmaker and settles into the cycle of blockbuster and low-budget films that has become the norm for A-list celebrities these days. The blockbusters pay the bills, the art films win awards, and Fassbender maintains his status throughout as one of the premiere talents of our generation. Actors are supposed to leverage their success to direct vanity projects, not burst onto the scene as a fully formed directorial talent.

There’s no such logical progression to Affleck’s career. He’s been a child actor, a movie star, a reality television host, and tabloid fodder. He’s dominated the box office with some of the highest-grossing films of their years and he’s been the punchline of every late-night talk show host. If you were to ask someone to list the best performances to his name, you’re as likely to get a movie from the beginning of his career – his fine supporting turns in Good Will Hunting or Shakespeare in Love, for example – as you are films like Gone Girl from his artistic peak. The closest thing we have to a Hollywood comparison is Clint Eastwood, but while Eastwood may share Affleck’s early failure as an actor and no-frills style as a director – and a healthy appreciation for the novels of Dennis Lehane – Eastwood did wait to consolidate power as an action mega-star before mounting a career as a Hollywood director. Affleck did the same at 34-years-old.

In fact, it seems rather odd that Affleck should ever have come a Hollywood director to begin with. By 2006, Affleck was teetering on the edge of direct-to-video obsolescence. His regular presence on tabloid covers – and string of critical and commercial failures at the box office – were slightly offset by a strong turn in Hollywoodland, but even that performance was relegated to a supporting role. Nobody could have predicted the steady hand and absolute confidence of Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone; fewer still could have seen the actor and the director unite to such acclaim in the successive hits of The Town and Argo. There’s a fine narrative to be written about Affleck suggesting that the blue collar Bostonian won out over the Hollywood playboy, but let’s not pretend like the turnaround of his career was anything but stunning in its speed and efficiency. In 2006, a cameo in Clerks II. In 2007, the heir-apparent to Clint Eastwood.

Ben Affleck Is Out For Blood In His New Gangster Flick Live By Night

All of the things we’ve listed above only speak to the projects Affleck has already finished; a glimpse into his Hollywood future offers no further insight into which personality will win out. We could talk about his leading man turn in The Accountant, the rare action movie seemingly aimed at adult audiences. We could talk about his upcoming adaptation of Lehane’s Live By Night, a film whose release date was recently bumped up to accommodate its eligibility for the Academy Awards. Or we could talk about the casting rumors and process for The Batman, the rare superhero movie to be written and directed by its leading man. I cannot help but feel like Affleck represents the beginning of something, a new wave of Hollywood actors who recognize the only way to survive blockbuster obsolescence is to transform themselves into a one-man production company. If the current state of Hollywood shows that comic book characters are more important than stars, then Affleck has found a way to bend the comic book characters to his will.

What makes Affleck so fascinating, then, is his elusiveness, our inability to paint him into any one corner. We’ve gotten so good at placing the various Hollywood pieces into their tidy little buckets; here are the dramatic leads, the comic book actors, the serious artists, and here is Affleck, not quite any of those things and yet all of them at once. He represents a rare surprise in an industry that tolerates anything but, and with every new film we take one step further into the unknown. The Accountant may have meant different things to Affleck fifteen, ten, or five years ago, but what it represents right now is another piece of the puzzle for a man who is single-handedly trying to buck the trend of actors becoming little more than interchangeable pieces for the roles they inhabit. And that makes Affleck, in his own peculiar way, one of the most interesting talents working today.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)