Manchester By The Sea (2017)
It’s always January isn’t it? That somewhat bleak, recuperation and recovery month when the cinemas suddenly resonate with the flotsam and jetsam of the previous year, especially the award attuned ‘serious’ cinema that dominate the discourse of the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the BAFTA’s and all the others. I recall going to see Kenneth Lonergan’s previous troubled film Margaret during a chilly January release, a long gestating project that required the intervention of luminaries such as Scorsese – yes him again – just to complete the films editing and guarantee a limited domestic and international release. Five years later his follow-up Manchester By The Sea arrives on a gilded cushion of critical praise, already clutching a panoply of awards and nominations, with acting and screenplay nods seemingly guaranteed with this years Academy Awards are announced next Tuesday. When we first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) we quickly parse that he’s a withdrawn and troubled soul, working as a handyman cum janitor in a quiet Massachusetts coastal town, prone to bouts of drunken violence in a local bar, while resisting the advances of men and woman into his hermetic, almost monastic world. A frosty morning phone call sets the story in motion – his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away from a long-suffering cardiac condition, summoning Lee back to the titular Manchester to conduct the various legal and bereavement arrangements, also nominating Lee as the temporary guardian of his sixteen year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) since their alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Moll) fled, or was exiled from the family a few years earlier.
Beware gentle reader, consider yourselves seriously warned, as this film is fucking heartbreaking. Through an expertly orchestrated lattice-work of flashbacks we incrementally learn of Lee’s tragic back-story, ignited and recalled in his imagination by the stresses and strains of the present’s new emotional responsibilities, with many of his fellow townsfolk whispering of a dark history when his back is turned. Affleck has always struck me as a haunting presence, malevently malefic in Oscar nominated turns such as The Assassination Of Jesse James etc., adroitly amusing in the Oceans movies, genuinely certifiable in The Killer Inside Me. But beneath that sinister edge there is a vulnerability which reminds one of Montgomery Clift or early career Sean Penn, and he is perfectly cast and perfectly plays those qualities to the fore in Manchester By The Sea, wracked with guilt and withdrawn from the pains of the world, suddenly thrust into a new lexicon of blood-tied responsibilities that he struggles to surpass. Having listened to a recent WTF interview with him he knows from bitter experience the impact parental psychosis can levy on the family unit, how rage and for some substance abuse clouds deeper haunting problems of the psyche, and he seems to be drawing from that personal reservoir for this shattering performance. He’s a different man, happier, genial and invigorated by life in flashback, a severe counterpoint to the muted husk we follow in the present day, he’s bulls-eyed a nomination and potential Oscar win and this controlled and internalised turn would be my front runner for February.
This is very much a winter film, shot with a shivering authenticity in the small coastal town of Manchester which squats an hours drive from Boston, perfectly melding the seasonal torpor with the Chandler family tragedies. It’s a generationally blue collar community where the denizens love their hockey and basketball, they enjoy fishing with their buddies so they can enjoy a beer or seven, the blood ties that bind forming the spine of the community. Lonergan is too much a respectful chronicler of the human condition, of our frustrations and foibles to offer any pandering solutions to torment, he doesn’t posit such platitudes that obliterating events may ever heal or regenerate. Still, beneath that bitter observation there is a quiet tender core to the film as fragments of joy and relief still remain, and the continued affection between Lee and his nephew – an amusing Lothario in training – has also earned Lucas Hedges a deserved Oscar nomination.
While there is a drizzle of observational humour to alleviate the oppression Lonergan is also an expert in the minutia of day to day life, the small quiet moments signalled by the slight curves of a smile or a painful sideways glance, those miniscule moments of unconscious communication which can transmit more than a thousand word soliloquy. It’s also a treatise not only on the repercussions of tragedy and bereavement but on the administration of death, the protocols of passing. Who makes the phone calls to impart the terrible news? How do you arrange the details with the undertakers, and whom arranges storage of the cadaver when the ground is to cold to commit to a service? Anyone who is suffering some density of family strife and struggle – in other words 99.9% of the human race – will find the film brimming with empathy while perhaps an exhausting experience, expertly modulated and paced with key information being revealed in key emotional flashbacks, which as narrative devices are revealed with maximum effect. Sometimes the unvarnished truth of our lives and their unresolved and messy strands need to be reflected on screen, to remind us that we’re not alone, and not everyone can easily shoulder the burdens of their lives, the destructive decisions and drives, as traditional resolutions would have us believe. It’s very early I know, we’re barely a month into the year, but this deeply moving and tragic film is a certain contender for one of the years best;