Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review: Manchester by the Sea

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Kenneth Lonergan's devastating "Manchester by the Sea" is the rare movie about the grieving process that doesn't end with its characters overcoming a tragedy and being happy again, but rather learning how to cope with their situation. While we see the film's characters change during the course of the picture, their story is by no means solved at the conclusion.

With only three feature films under his belt, Lonergan has proven himself a master at capturing the way ordinary people speak, live existences that are recognizable to us and deal with difficult situations. His "You Can Count On Me" was an assured debut, while his post-9/11 drama "Margaret" was a bold directorial statement.

His latest, "Manchester by the Sea," is intimate in nature and tells the very sad story of Lee Chandler (a career best for Casey Affleck), although the film is often funny and uses deadpan humor to alleviate the tension and sadness. During one scene, Lee and his nephew, Patrick (a very good Lucas Hedges), sit at the dinner table. Lee has a bandage on his hand after having punched out a window and Patrick inquires about the injury. "It's cut," replies Lee. "Oh, for a minute there I didn't know what happened," Patrick shoots back.

It's incredible that the film's characters remember how to crack jokes at all. In flashbacks, we learn how a tragedy that I won't reveal here broke apart Lee's marriage to his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, stellar). Lee, who lives alone and works as a maintenance man for a building, purposefully avoids most human contact, that is, other than the occasional fights he picks at the local bar where he hangs out in Boston.

As the picture opens, Lee's older brother (Kyle Chandler, also excellent) has just died and Lee is surprised to find that he has been left as the guardian for Patrick. This leads to a conundrum because Patrick goes to school in the film's small, titular town and - as he likes to mention, he plays hockey for the school team, all of his friends are there and he has two girlfriends. Therefore, Lee would have to move to where Patrick lives (he's not enthused with the idea) or Patrick would have to move in with Lee in Boston.

The film effortlessly switches back and forth between Lee going about the practical matters of arranging for his brother's funeral and taking over father figure duties with Patrick and flashbacks that show us gradually how Lee became so isolated and reveal how close he was to his brother. Although every performance in the film is great, "Manchester by the Sea" is not a showy film. It'll likely get nominated for a slew of awards, but it doesn't beg for them.

As I'd mentioned before, one of the elements that makes the film so powerful and raw is that it doesn't wrap everything up in a bow and there aren't exactly happy endings for many of the characters. Rather, Lee and those in his orbit come to accept that their lives will never likely be the same again and they learn to cope with their grief.

Towards the picture's end, a particularly cathartic - albeit profoundly sad - conversation takes place between Lee and his ex-wife on a street corner that is just as moving as the final conversation in Barry Jenkins's marvelous "Moonlight." Both scenes are among the year's best in terms of writing and acting.

"Manchester by the Sea" is an astute, haunting and powerful film about loss and the way people punish themselves for their mistakes, but it's also about forgiveness - learning to forgive others and ourselves and to ask for forgiveness from those whom we've cause pain. The picture is emotionally rewarding, but does not peddle cheap sentiment, and while it could be described as melodrama, it's never maudlin. This is one of the year's best movies.

1 comment:

  1. Couple of things: MBTS is very good but Lonergan doesn't really know how to handle the flashbacks. His visual style is very straightforward, unostentatious, shoot & cut etc etc which is appropriate when the movie is in the present. Plumbing the past is something that requires a greater visual acuity & approach. Merely dropping scenes from the past next to ones from the present in one blandly defined "register" seems inadequate.
    Also: The big fugue/centerpiece cued to Handel is both moving AND overwrought. The scene you allude to at the end is genuinely heartbreaking, the most emotional thing I've seen all year.