Kenneth Lonergan, 2016,USA
I saw ‘Manchester by the Sea’ straight after ‘A Monster Calls’ which made it obvious how much they were kindred spirits in themes of loneliness, loss and grief, guilt and anger. But if the latter is about using imagination to cope with tragedy early in life, the former is about having tragedy strip that ability from you. It made for a emotionally thorough double-bill.
Central to the success of ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler, his demeanour, attitude and eyes always seeming to intimidate people, always implying something repressed. Is he scary because he might just flip over into violence? Well, he does that too, yet he never does that to the people closest despite losing his temper at times, however much we might anticipate and fear that he will. But the answer is more that he scares people because of what happened to him in the past, and therefore it is what he represents that is more daunting. It’s that he represents something irreparable, that he’s a broken soul, that he’s a walking symbol of unbearable guilt and loss. So when he does flip into violence it is something more akin to a fatalist bid to punish himself rather than being obnoxious.
But this is not obvious at first, for the story takes it time with revelations, interspersing flashbacks then memories triggered by what is currently happening. For example, discussion of Joe’s will where Lee discovers he is meant to be the guardian of Joe’s teenaged son, Patrick, not only triggers flashbacks but also strays away from the immediate scene the same way Lee’s mind is wandering. Rarely have flashbacks been so naturalistic. Lonergan’s direction may be devoid of superficial trickery but its fluidity and clarity are its strength and achievement, allowing the story and actors to grip the attention whilst conveying other layers with the framing of scenes. Lonergan’s script and style also fleshes out the secondary of characters to capture the waves of influence this drama has on the most incidental of characters (acquaintances, doctors and nurses, policemen, lawyers, etc.). It feels very much like life in that way.
It is the relationship between Lee and Patrick that provides the core of the film: Lee having to carefully battle with the impenetrable shell he has built around himself to try and do right by his nephew, which he wants to do. Patrick is a decent, fiery and horny sixteen year-old in a tremendous performance by Lucas Hedges.The crux of the drama is the question of will this relationship bring Lee out of his detachment. Lonergan says, “I don’t like the Hollywood idea: ‘It’s all OK.’”* And if you don’t totally subscribe to the idea that cinema should be totally escapist reassurance, or perhaps you find so much feel-good material is condescending, then you likely think “Amen” to that. It’s a chance run-in with his former wife that proves the true test, and it’s a phenomenal scene where Michelle Williams reaches a complexity of raw feeling and reaction that is truly heart-breaking.
A lot of reviews imply it is miserablism and yes it’s dour, with the washed-out colourscheme setting the tone, but it never feels gratuitous. Indeed, it is often funny. It’s the tale of a man unable to overcome himself, although he tries, and that is a rare thing in a medium where overcoming is a dominant agenda. He carries on and there are hints that he is, indeed, changed and hopeful but the film refuses to condescend by elaborating to an ending where all is rectified. It’s a truly adult drama built on a supple script and tremendous performances.
· Jonathan Romney, “A Winter’s Tale”, Sight and Sound, February 2017, vol. 27, issue 2, pg. 51