Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Produced by Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh, Lauren Beck
Cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes
DVD – library (2:17)
Given enough time, I will eventually see all of the Oscar-winning movies from the previous year. Casey Affleck, of course, won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lee Chandler, a handyman working for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. As the film opens, Lee goes about his routine tasks, saying little when tenants complain about the building, or ask his opinion on plumbing issues. Later Lee loses it by cursing at a tenant and starting a fight at a local bar. Clearly something’s going on.
That something is revealed to us in flashbacks. It’s not much of a spoiler to disclose that Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of cardiac arrest early in the film, which is devastating enough, but in his will, Joe has named Lee to be the guardian of his 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Through a series of flashbacks, we soon learn why Lee not only won’t be Patrick’s guardian, but can’t.
That’s all I’m going to give you about the plot. I knew very little going into the film other than it would be an emotionally devastating film and it is. For some people, it’s simply too devastating. My sister-in-law – who lost her father just a few months before she saw the movie – had a horrific experience. If I had seen the film first, I would’ve kept her away from it. I show few films to my wife, but I will never show her this one. People deal with death in different ways. I’m not saying the film wouldn’t be cathartic for someone grieving the death of a loved one, but I think it could be a tough sell.
On to the movie itself, its strengths and weaknesses:
The film contains several flashbacks, many of them difficult to recognize (at least for a few seconds) due to Casey Affleck looking basically the same regardless of the time period. Most of the flashbacks, however, telegraph themselves: when Joe appears, it’s obviously a flashback; when Patrick appears as a little kid, it’s a flashback. This is not a huge problem for viewers who are used to flashbacks.
As a former musician and music teacher, I’m always sensitive to a film’s score and unfortunately this one overdoes it, at times to an embarrassing degree. Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” – a piece that has been used ad nauseam in films from the 70s onward – is used as a backdrop to an enormously tragic scene that would actually carry more power and impact without any music. Other classical works by Handel and Bach are also used, although with slightly better results.
A frequent complaint you’ll hear from me if you read this blog long enough is that most modern films are too long. Grief isn’t the only thing that seems endless in this film. There comes a point in which the audience understands Lee’s character and doesn’t need to witness scene after scene after scene that shows us elements of his character we already know. (The same is true for Patrick, but to a lesser degree.) Oddly enough, shorter running times seem to benefit both comedy and tragedy.
One of the film’s great strengths is in how its characters deal with tragedy and each other. Lee can’t understand why Patrick keeps going to band practice (his rock band, not a school band), can’t understand why he’s focused on fixing a boat he can no longer afford to keep (much less run), can’t understand how he can try to juggle two girlfriends at this time in his life. Patrick needs to keep moving forward. That doesn’t mean he’s not grieving, but Lee can’t see this because he has created his own way to grieve which is often at polar opposites with Patrick’s. The two are at odds with each other and not only over how they grieve. Yet strangely enough, this relationship provides several moments of genuine humor.
Grief films are a hard sell. So many people who watch them want confirmation of their feelings or to know that someone else understands. Some may be looking for enlightenment or simply another way to handle their grief. And let’s be honest: some people watch movies like Manchester by the Sea in order to feel better about their own lives and situations. But many want closure in such films because they can’t find it in their own circumstances. Without giving too much away, the closure in Manchester by the Sea will no doubt satisfy some and disappoint others. Yet many will watch the film just to see Affleck’s Oscar-winning performance. So what about Affleck’s work here?
Affleck’s performance is one that was rewarded more for his restraint than any pyrotechnics. This is best shown in a scene late in the film with Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), a scene that by itself is worth the price of admission. It is a scene so honest, so vulnerable and fragile, acted with such longing and restraint it’s practically a small miracle, a moment so well-written and acted that it can’t be improved upon no matter how hard you try. (I am convinced this scene alone earned Williams an Oscar nomination and was probably the deciding factor in Affleck’s win.) Make no mistake, Affleck is good – often excellent – throughout. Your enjoyment of his performance, if not the entire film, will depend upon your expectations of an “Oscar-winning performance” going in. Watch with an open mind and realize that all of the performances are good.
Manchester by the Sea is one of those films you appreciate more than you “enjoy” it. Be careful who you show it to. Perhaps I’m overstating that, but when your own family has lost someone unexpectedly in the recent past, you want to show them films that will help, not hurt.
Photos: Fandango, Observer, The New York Times, IndieWire