Friday, December 2

REVIEW: Manchester by the Sea

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
2016 Drama
2 hours 17 minutes
From Amazon Studios

Casey Affleck
Lucas Hedges
Michelle Williams
Kyle Chandler
C. J. Wilson
Tate Donovan
Anna Baryshnikov
Josh Hamilton
Gretchen Mol
Matthew Broderick

This is a little different twist from what we usually think of as a family film and yet this is undeniably a film about a family and with the right mindset, I think it's a fair assessment to say it's for family.  It never hurts, does it, to see how another family or person is handling the stuff we've been handling?  

How about these for starters... love, loss, guilt, separation, grief, recovery, caring, sharing, losing it, finding it, being disregarded, dismissed, under-appreciated... you pick.  It and so much more is here to grab on to and I dare say much of it will have some personal meaning for many sitting in those darkened theaters. Nothing is too tidy in and around Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts.  How can a community as lovely as this one, with its harbor full of belching boats, sweeping sea gulls, puffy clouds, clapboard houses dotting the hillsides and friendly faces and those Massachusetts accents everywhere one turns, be so complex and turned upside down?  

A divorced janitor lives and works in and around Boston doing what he can, what he knows how to do, to make it through a rather joyless existence.  He has little to say and doesn't seem to have much of a social life except sitting alone on some barstool somewhere and that doesn't always work out real well.  We're not sure why he is so withdrawn although we pay a little more attention to his hair trigger.

As we're thinking we'll probably get clued in to what his issues are, we learn his beloved brother has passed away.  He makes the trip to Manchester by the Sea, his former hometown, and soon learns that his brother has left custody of a 16-year old son to him. (The mother, an alcoholic, is out of the picture.)  We're certain there's gonna be a bumpy ride in there somewhere.

Our hero isn't interested in being his nephew's guardian while the nephew isn't troubled with the new arrangement providing no one leaves Manchester by the Sea.  Aha, not so quickly...

A main reason the uncle is resisting this is because he's already dealing with that certain something we know he's dealing with. Of course, we soon learn he's actually not dealing with it so well, that it's a tragedy of such epic proportions that we all might wonder how we would handle it if it happened to us.  Pay attention to a scene in a police station.

How lovely life might be if there just wasn't any mess.  I suspect that we either learn to conquer it or at least learn how to step around it or it ends up conquering us.  That may say a lot about what this film wants us to know.

There is so much to admire about this movie... chief among its many merits is superior writing (by our director, no less) and such fully fleshed-out, richly-layered characters.  If you do not always agree with some things these characters say or do, it's not difficult to understand why those things happen because these folks are written so that we get them and we feel their terrible pain.  

Understanding the inner workings of these characters, their anguish, sensitivities, remorse and sense of loss requires a slow, painstaking look at the ordinariness of their lives and the normalcy they're trying to achieve.  That painstaking means this story is delivered at a leisurely pace.  I remember many years ago talking with a friend about the film Death in Venice, and he referred to it as Slow Death in Venice. There may be a certain likeness in these films for some and while I would understand that, to experience the beauty of this film one needs to sit back, relax and just soak up all that the writer wants you to get.  It is an indie film, to be sure, and in this case a wonderfully delicious one.

I love Casey Affleck.  He is so right for this part... so right, in fact, that I can hardly believe that Matt Damon was going to do this.  He only turned it down because of a scheduling conflict... and he was going to direct it as well.  (He's still one of the many producers, as is John Krasinski.)  Damon is in no way a bad actor, but Affleck is simply right for this role.  Dunno about you, but as much as I have always liked Affleck, I confess to wondering what is going on with that guy?  I mean... really.  What's going on? He is so reserved, seems to hold so much close to the vest, eyes dart, smiles rare. Well, say no more, this is why he got the part.  When he got this script he must have cried out.... holy s----, I have these many words to say? 

He expertly conveys a broken man and there were moments that I felt such heartbreak and found myself getting choked up. Friends, I'll tell you what... that's good writing to me. If a writer can get me to that point, something about what or how it was written touched my heart.  He is the entire movie.  I can't say I didn't know he had it in him... I did... and I have seen other marvelous Affleck performances but not like this one.  I once referred to him as the younger brother of what's-his-name but no longer.  It really is one of the great performances.  I love his unerring sense of timing and his fabulous facial business.  Hell, maybe he doesn't have to talk... that face says it all.  Bravo, Casey Affleck. I hope folks see this work. Perhaps he should polish up an Oscar acceptance speech. (Maybe I shouldn't say that... I haven't been so good at predicting things these days.)  

We understand the teenage mind as well as we have a right to expect to.  The boy is written with such knowledge, compassion, humor and regard and life was breathed into him by an impossibly talented young man, Lucas Hedges. The relationship between the smart-mouthed teen and his taciturn uncle hits all the right notes.

Michelle Williams is equally stellar in her role as the ex-wife and the sadness she portrays in one scene in particular is breathtaking to behold.  She certainly deserves a supporting Oscar nod.

I very much liked Kyle Chandler (his character's last name was also Chandler) as the brother.  Although he dies at the very beginning of the film, he comes alive in flashbacks and while I'm usually iffy on this over-used movie practice, it is well-done and needed here.

Chandler, Hedges, Lonergan, Affleck

This is just the third directorial achievement for Lonergan and what an achievement it is. His first was You Can Count on Me and then Margaret and what they have in common with Manchester by the Sea is that they are all have an exquisitely calibrated sense of loss and grief.  I loved how he had his cameras move around faces to cover them from many angles and how familiar we became with the town.  I wasn't watching a movie... I was there.  I don't think I could praise him anymore as a writer than I already have.  I hope he cops Oscar nods for directing and writing.

It was a wonderful use of music here... all kinds... 40s stuff, opera, and a wonderful, occasionally haunting, sometimes wistful score. If this is available to me in some form, I'm getting it.

I love films full of pathos.  This is a well-told story and an engrossing slice of entertainment well worth your time.

Next posting:
a good 40s film 

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