Monday, December 19, 2016

Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Even though he's only made three features now to date, Manchester By the Sea director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is one of my favorites. You Can Count on Me is that good, and Margaret is not bad either for a commercially buried studio botch job. Happy then to find that even with highest expectations Manchester By the Sea is one of the best things I've seen in a long while. Once again strained family relations are the focus—it's more pages ripped from that safe place we all go where it hurts. Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, is the setting, a small town on the Atlantic coast of about 5,000. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a single man working for minimum wage and a room as a building maintenance man in a Boston apartment complex. It's just an aces script. Things happen right along—first off, Lee hears that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, no relation) has died at age 45 from a known heart condition. Lee has to go back to Manchester to take care of affairs. He learns at the reading of the will that Joe has designated and provided for him as the legal guardian of Joe's son, Lee's nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This is not something Lee saw coming, though steady flashback sequences have begun to establish their long-term relationship, and all the swirling events that mark him and his brother and his family. Lee, actually, has quite a lot of baggage from his past, including a former marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams). It's a bit of a jam in the first 40 minutes or so getting the context and details fleshed out. There's a lot of whispering and murmuring from the townsfolk signifying something big. Thankfully, they get to that soon enough that we don't have to be too annoyed with teasing. There are some overdone scenes here—Lesley Barber really sets the orchestra to sawing in a couple of key sequences. But I can't say I wasn't unaffected—it's got a pinch of Mystic River hysterics, but that's reined in enough. It's mostly a showcase for Casey Affleck, who may or may not be underrated, but whose only performance even close to this I know was the underrated Assassination of Jesse James. He is also drawing a lot from Mark Ruffalo's turn in You Can Count on Me (or maybe that's Lonergan's direction). Michelle Williams has relatively little screen time but she's there for every second of it. The best scenes, and there are a few of them, involve a stationary camera, a room, and long, long awkward passages. There is death and tragedy here (and that sawing orchestra too) but it didn't feel too overdone, once acclimated to the premise. Everyone is up for this. I want to see it a bunch more times.


  1. Thought this was really good, but it didn't really get to me the way You Can Count on Me always does.

  2. I liked this too; finally getting ar to seeing it. Mostly b/c of Affleck's performance, I think. Which, to me, harkens back to old school method acting, Brando, Hoffman, Pacino, etc. It's not so much naturalistic (jarringly improbable at times, actually) as vividly, combustibly, emblematic of internal conflicts. In a way, his choked up confession, "I can't beat it," is the only important line he has in the film, even if the drift of the story is that, for the sake of the kid, he can learn to live w/ it. Everything else is the way he makes manifest, w/out words, the terrible guilt, shame, anger, and bitterness weighing him down. He's lost in self-pity and the kid, in the way he inconveniences him, in his neediness, is a life-line to Affleck's character, pulling him back into the churn of life ar him. I liked all this, even shed a tear or two, watching the story unfold. And I liked the comic relief of the bickering garage band in the basement too. But my complaint concerns another aspect of the music in the movie. In particular, the long classical passages over the key flashback reveal scenes. I take this move as a gesture trying to give to the working class milieu portrayed the "classical" gravitas of dramatic tragedy. And I'm not suggesting this can't be done effectively. The effect here, though, to me, whether b/c of the music's over-familiarity, or its overly bombastic use, is mawkishly melodramatic and unfortunately distracting and distancing.