MANCHESTER BY THE SEA A-
USA (137 mi) 2016 d: Kenneth Lonergan
For the most part, the story concerns a morose, self-absorbed loner that spends so much time drinking, brooding, and being down in the proverbial dumps that he just seems like the kind of guy that prefers to wallow in his own misery. Not your typical protagonist, but a guy on the edge who if he isn’t careful, may end up all alone late in life talking to the walls where he might resemble Al Pacino in David Gordon Green’s miserablist indie film Manglehorn (2014), a guy that’s simply too screwed up for his own good. Not the blockbuster powerhouse of his previous film, 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #2 Margaret, which is so ridiculously awesome in so many respects, a bold and brutally honest exposé of a post 9/11 New York, or his masterpiece in miniature, You Can Count On Me (2000), a portrait of an orphaned brother and sister, following their lives as the years progress, an understated poetic gem, where Lonergan’s particular skill is finding the inner truth of his characters. Both feature extraordinarily well-written dialogue and some of the best acting performances on record. This one examines another uncomfortable reality that plays out in a different fashion if only because of its predictable yet steadfast refusal not to lose sight of what’s eating at the central character, the extent of his personal loss, the source of his unending despair, as his heart has been ripped from his chest and he’s doomed to spend the rest of his life without it, isolated and completely shut down emotionally, where a Greek chorus of whispers heard throughout considers him damaged goods. If it feels like a ghost story, it is, as the man is a walking ghost. But it doesn’t start out that way. It opens with two brothers out on a fishing boat, with older brother Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) at the helm while his kid brother Lee (Casey Affleck) is horsing around with Joe’s young son Patrick (Ben O’Brien), telling him exaggerated shark stories that are meant to scare him out of his wits, but the kid isn’t buying it. It turns out to be the happiest moment in the film, and it’s all a memory, backed by a melancholy choral score and lovely recurring orchestral touches from Handel’s Messiah, Handel: Messiah / Part 1 - 13. Pifa (Pastoral Symphony) - YouTube (3:04), adding an underlying layer of stark beauty mixed with profound sadness.
The film, often given a literary feel as it’s filled with introspection, introduces us to Lee, seen shoveling snow for an apartment complex, living in Quincy, a neighborhood near Boston living the life of a hermit, performing janitorial duties, where he spends his life getting drunk in bars and getting into brawls, with an opening montage showing him performing the dirty work, fixing toilets, light fixtures, leaky faucets and showers, performing these hands-on duties in the intimacies of other people’s apartments where he hears a constant stream of complaints as they see his presence as an unnecessary intrusion in their all-too busy lives. It’s while clearing the sidewalks that he receives a phone call from George (C.J. Wilson), a family friend, notifying him that his brother suffered cardiac arrest and is heading for surgery. By the time he gets there, he’s already dead. The scene at the hospital is respectful but awkwardly reserved, where George is the grown-up in the room while Lee remains overwhelmed by it all, breaking down momentarily when he views the body, a scene filled with emotion and one of the surprises of the film, as he keeps his feelings so tightly wound and close to the vest. Lee holds in the past, trying to contain the effects by compressing it while living in the present, where two trajectories are happening simultaneously. This series of flashbacks allows viewers a broader view of the family history, where Joe was personable and affable, well-liked by others and viewed as the steadying influence, where his absence is immediately noticeable, while Lee is viewed as the black sheep, more temperamental and hard to get along with due to his changeable moods, where we learn that Joe had a history of heart congestion, a source of irritation to his wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), who left him shortly afterwards with a drinking problem and hasn’t been seen since. All this is going through Lee’s mind as he heads to the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small historic and picturesque community on the state’s northeast edge where Joe lived and kept a boat, as he needs to inform Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now a 16-year old kid in high school, seen having a particular physical moment at practice on the hockey rink when Lee arrives, arousing the curiosity of his teammates who identify Lee as an infamous figure from the past, where the point of view remains with the teammates staring silently across the ice, where something out of the ordinary must have drawn him here.
At the opening of the will in the lawyer’s office, Lee is surprised to learn he has been named guardian for Patrick, something that was never previously discussed with his brother, yet as he’s called upon to be there in a moment of crisis, he falls into a profound silence, opening the floodgates to the past, where flashbacks are woven into the storyline as seamlessly as the present, often indistinguishable, yet they have the effect of peeling away the layers of Lee’s tortured soul. Set to the fatalistic music of Albinoni’s sorrowful “Adagio,” Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ, "Albinoni's Adagio" - YouTube (8:38), a dramatic piece also used in Peter Weir’s GALLIPOLI (1981), we discover he was once happily married to Randi (Michelle Williams), leading a surprisingly normal life until an emotionally devastating event occurs, a random freak accident that he feels responsible for and could never ignore, a catastrophic moment that ruined his marriage and drove him out of his hometown for good. Now another traumatic event is luring him back. As they leave the office, Lee is in a state of bewilderment, suggesting they may have to move for Boston, which only inflames Patrick, a popular guy who has a good thing going here, who doesn’t want to be uprooted, when Lonergan appears as a bystander, interjecting his own sardonic message into the mix of family turmoil, criticizing the authoritative behavior of Lee as he shuts up Patrick, yelling out “Great parenting,” which only inflames Lee more, wanting to smack him right there on the street. With both talking over the other, it’s an example of overlapping dialogue occurring simultaneously, a Lonergan trademark, though it feels loose and improvisatory. Patrick notices a change in Lee’s demeanor from when he was younger, where he’s turned into an obnoxiously downbeat guy who probably drinks too much, while Patrick is smart and extremely likeable, playing in an amusingly terrible garage band, on the hockey team, and is balancing two girlfriends. When asked if he’s having sex with them both, he claims with one it is “strictly basement business,” where he’s stuck in the basement avoiding parental interruptions, but “It means I’m working on it.” Patrick is a terrific kid who’s probably already more mature than Lee, but he’s also a troubled teen mourning the loss of his father, keeping secret the whereabouts of his mother who disappeared years ago, but recently reached out to him over the Internet. Lonergan has a way of capturing teen chatter, a cryptic way of aggressively using words in short bursts, understanding it’s a time for intense fascination with things, yet you’re stuck in an isolated and socially awkward stage in life, as kids need to be driven everywhere by their parents, a task Lee is not altogether ready to handle. Patrick’s thriving social activity is a contrast to his brooding solitude.
Lee is so caught up in a cycle of grief that he’s left feeling as if time is standing still, where nearly every scene takes place in the crisp chill of wintry air, with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes beautifully capturing the harsh winters of a remote seaside town that seem perpetually overcast, with boats regularly seen going out and coming in, where the use of classical music, especially the pieces from Handel’s Messiah, including a brilliant alto and soprano duet in “He Shall Feed His Flock,” Manchester By The Sea (Original Soundtrack Album) - Spotify, an incredibly sad and melancholy lament filled with an expression of hope that God will unburden our sorrow, that recall familiar sounds associated with Christmas. In this film, when everything else is stripped away, we are left to enter a sort of sacred interior reverie, a hallowed ground of emptiness that is left unfilled, an inner sanctity of unendurable pain for which there is no outlet. The depth of the story is a man living with unbearable grief, someone unable to be comforted by anything, standing alone at his brother’s funeral service avoiding eye contact, watching others hugging and kissing while he stands separate and apart, where people try to interact with him, but he doesn’t respond to their attempts, ignoring them, as if waiting for them to go away. He’s not so much depressed, but grieving, unable to forgive himself for what he is ultimately responsible for, carrying all the tragedies that occurred on his back every waking minute of his life, unable to move on from his loss, remaining emotionally crippled. Perhaps surprising is the degree of humor found in this film, often in awkward moments, where it can be insanely funny the way normally reserved New England men express their love and admiration for one another, usually fueled by alcohol, excessively poor taste, bitter sarcasm, and foul language. Patrick is really sarcastic, for instance, offering wry jokes leading to an amazing resilience, capable of instantly changing the dire mood, while Lee has an undercutting wit, where humor softens the harsher edges of tragedy. Without the humor, the film would be an unending dirge, but the film more accurately captures a rhythm of life complete with ordinary missteps, where attention to detail is essential, depicting a New England, working-class family with Irish Catholic roots, who are loyal to a fault, but in the case of Lee, easily provoked to violence. One of the scenes of the film comes near the end when Lee encounters his ex-wife Randi on the street, the only operatic moment, where she reaches out for him, literally offering her heart, acknowledging her share of the blame in a magnanimous gesture that catches him off-guard, as he’s obviously moved by the emotional sincerity of her efforts, letting himself go just for a moment before stopping himself and shutting down again, regaining his self-control, where he’s not yet ready to commit, or even forgive himself, as he’s still in the midst of figuring out how to survive the years of pent-up emotions, but while there’s not an ounce of healing or redemption to be found anywhere, it’s a huge dramatic undertaking to even recognize that love is still in the air.