Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (limited)
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
A good movie offers escapism. A better movie makes us think. But some of the best movies don’t necessarily allow us the luxury of escape. They challenge us to face the world that actually includes us, holding a mirror up to our own realities and daring us to keep looking closer. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is one such movie, a stunningly perceptive drama that’s not only technically impressive but emotionally heavy-hitting as well. Despite almost unrelenting bleakness, it just well may be the year’s most relatable movie.
The titular town is not much more than a small port, a few fishing boats and about as many red lights; a crusty blue-collar town clinging to the Massachusetts coast hardened by more than just brutal winters. It doesn’t announce itself as a happening place, but for one man who once called this harbor home, everything that ever mattered to him happened here. In this most unexpected of places we will, through a series of devastating revelations, be reminded of a few brutal truths about the human experience.
The film pairs its creaky, rundown setting with subtle (but powerful) performances to effect an intentionally mundane aesthetic. It tells of a man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who reluctantly becomes his nephew’s guardian when the boy’s father (Lee’s brother Joe who is, confusingly enough, portrayed by Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly. The premise may seem simple at first but it is pregnant with complexity and nuance. Lee leads a spectacularly unspectacular life in Boston, making minimum wage as a custodian for an apartment block. It’s perhaps not the most ideal line of work for someone trying to avoid people at all costs, but it’s pretty darn close. Aloof in the extreme and prone to violent outbursts, Lee is not a protagonist we immediately embrace. He’s actually kind of a jackass: spurning women’s advances and getting into bar fights because someone gives him the wrong look.
But there’s a method to the madness. Working from a screenplay he originally intended to be his sole contribution to the production, Lonergan steadily reveals layers to a character in a protracted emotional crisis. Flashbacks play a crucial role in the process. Lee is first evaluated as a worker, as a pee-on to the average white-collar Bostonian. A series of interactions Lee tries not to have with his clients — tenants whose lights have broken, whose toilets have clogged, whose bathtubs need sealant and whose goodwill is eroded by the man’s social awkwardness — gives us the impression Lee kinda just hates his job. But the bitterness runs a bit deeper than that. He seems to have a genuine disdain for the human race.
Manchester By the Sea uses flashbacks both as a gateway to the past and as our exclusive access into the mind of a thoroughly depressed individual. The cutaways occur incredibly naturally, manifesting as a sort of internal response to external stress. A visit with the lawyer to get his brother’s affairs in order proves to be a particularly sensitive trigger. What to do with the family boat, the house and other possessions, funeral arrangements — the whole headache rekindles feelings he would rather not have. This moment sends us on a trip down memory lane and into the drama’s darkest moments. What Lee has apparently been coping with for years — what ultimately drove a wedge between him and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) — proves bitterly poignant.
On the other side of this flashback we view Lee as a different person. Not that our empathy is garnered in one fell swoop, but looking back, if we were to point to a specific moment when our perception started to evolve, it undoubtedly is this epiphany. It is here where we start to view his world through a much darker, cloudier lens. Back in his hometown and daunted by new, unexpected responsibilities — most notably looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) — Lee is also left with little choice but to confront his demons and try to stake a new path forward. But is he really up to the task? How would we deal with all of this?
Manchester By the Sea evokes its strongest emotional and psychological responses from its characters. The narrative certainly stimulates the mind, but the people are what appeal to the heart. Affleck plays a man who seems tailor-made for the actor’s unusual real-life persona. His controversial behavior in his private life (at least as of late) makes the transition into playing an emotionally unstable anti-hero a less surprising one. Gossip is pretty useless really, but is it not ironic Affleck has allowed a few of his own character defects to become things for public consumption in the run-up to the release of a film featuring a severely flawed character? Gossip is also useless because I am only assuming he’s fired his publicist. He’s probably done that in spite of claims that he “doesn’t care about fame.”
And this is stupid because all of this is just padding my word count. As is this.
Before my ADHD gets the better of me, other names are certainly deserving of what remains of this page space. Hedges and Williams in particular make strong cases for Oscars consideration. The former introduces a compelling new dynamic and the perfect foil for Lee’s anti-socialite. Popular in school, on the hockey team, a member of a garage band and currently juggling two girlfriends, Patrick is the antithesis of his uncle. He makes an effort to connect with others. Aspects of his personality and his attitude are going to feel familiar, but this is far from the archetypal teenage annoyance. Williams, in a limited but unforgettable supporting role as the estranged ex-wife, mines emotional depths equal to her co-star who is given ten times the amount of screen time. That’s not to detract from what Affleck has accomplished. Quite simply the actress achieves something here that’s difficult to put into words.
Manchester By the Sea uses one man and his struggle to speak to the melancholy pervading the lives of millions. The language of the film is pain, so even if the specifics don’t speak to your experience the rollercoaster of emotions, the undulating waves of uncertainty and despair surely will. And yet, for all the sadness in which it trades, Lonergan’s magnum opus finds room for genuinely affecting humor. Hedges often supplies welcomed doses of sarcasm to offset Affleck’s perpetually sullen demeanor. And it is surely welcomed, for if it weren’t for the laughs perhaps it all would have been too much. The best films know when enough is enough.
Recommendation: Powerfully performed and confidently directed, Manchester By the Sea may on the surface seem like a certain kind of crowd-pleaser — perhaps more the critic-circle variety — but I’d like to think the film’s technical merits and the minutiae of the performances are what has drawn a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story’s ability to make you empathize is worth recommending to anyone who appreciates a good story about “normal people.” This is a potent, vital film about the human experience and a testament to the indiscriminate yet seemingly random cruelties that life presents.
Running Time: 137 mins.
Quoted: “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.”
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