Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
Manchester by the Sea is only the third feature film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, whose first, You Can Count on Me, released a full 16 years ago, was a near-perfect study of a dysfunctional family that helped launch the career of Mark Ruffalo (and featured a fine performance from Laura Linney, as well). Lonergan ran into serious post-production difficulties (i.e., studio interference) on his sophomore effort, Margaret, which took 8 years, start to finish, to make it to the screen (and with only a limited release, at that). Now, however, he is back with a movie that should, at the very least, regain him some lost momentum; it is certainly on many Oscar-buzz lists, a position that is mostly well-deserved (though allegations of sexual harassment against its star may derail these award chances). And though I may not find it flawless – befitting its profoundly human theme, it’s often messy, for better and for worse – it is nevertheless an extraordinarily moving treatment of an almost unbearable subject, tragic and funny in equal parts. For a film this sad to also offer up genuine laughs is a testament to both Lonergan’s powers as a storyteller and to his extremely talented cast.
Leading the ensemble is Casey Affleck (Out of the Furnace) as Lee Chandler, a man we first meet on a boat somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts, joking with his young nephew while the boy’s father (Lee’s brother, Joe), pilots the craft. It’s a happy, light-hearted moment, in sharp contrast to the Lee we see next, post-title sequence, who works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy (a little over 10 miles south of Boston). Gone is the bluster, replaced by resignation, slumped shoulders and dead eyes. Still, something burns inside of him, as we discover when he goes out at night to a bar, gets drunk, and picks a fight. What has happened to torture him in this way? And what is the chronological relationship of the opening to the present, if present it is? One of the beauties of Lonergan’s presentation of the narrative is how fluidly we travel back and forth in time, gently gathering additional story details that improve our understanding of Lee’s condition, until the big reveal that explains all. Affleck is simply magnificent in the role, alternating between the cocky man he once was and the inchoate zombie he has become, impressive in his behavioral virtuosity.
Before we uncover the secret at the heart of the tragedy, however, there is an initial misfortune, almost as sad, that drives the plot. That brother from the boat, Joe (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now), collapses from a bad heart, leaving his son, Patrick (now 16), in need of a guardian. His will stipulates that it be Lee (Patrick’s mother, an alcoholic, moved away years earlier), which comes as a surprise to the designee. No further plot spoilers here, but the rest of the film sees Lee struggle to overcome the very real demons of his past while balancing the new, unsought responsibilities of a parent. As his nephew, Lucas Hedges (Kill the Messenger) matches Affleck beat for beat, and it is in their sweet, sometimes antagonistic, rapport, that the movie offers the greatest hope for Lee’s healing. There’s a lot to overcome, however.
Affleck and Hedges are not alone, by far. Michelle Williams (Certain Women), as Lee’s estranged ex-wife, brings her usual deep commitment to the part. There is a scene towards the end of the film, between the former spouses, set on a windy street while Williams’ baby from her second marriage lies in the carriage she pushes, that will break your heart, if it hasn’t been broken already. Beyond specific movies, if one could nominate moments within movies for Oscars, I would choose that one. Chandler, in flashback, is also strong as Joe; both Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire), as Joe’s ex-wife, and Matthew Broderick (The Producers), as her deeply religious new man, liven up their few on-screen bits, as well. Even more so, the film is populated by a rich cast of lesser-known talents who complement the leads in foreground and background, both.
If the film has a weakness, for me, it’s in the score, which features far too great a use of well-known classical music pieces, including Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor (previously heard in films like Gallipoli, Dragonslayer and Flashdance, among far too many others) and a few selections from Handel’s Messiah, as well. For those inclined to notice sound-synchronization issues, there are a few moments where the lips of a character in the front of an over-the-shoulder shot do not quite match the dialogue, since that sound is clearly taken from the close-up to which we subsequently cut. In addition, a few scenes feel oddly truncated and unmotivated, as if Lonergan were trimming away the fat and had inadvertently struck the bone. Still, these are, overall, small quibbles, since what remains is an overwhelmingly intense meditation on the power, and limitations, of redemption, beautiful even in (and maybe because of) its untidiness, a metaphor for our sometimes-vain attempts to make sense out of the chaos of living.