Friday, December 2, 2016

Manchester by the Sea: Drowning in an ocean of grief

Manchester by the Sea (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.2.16

Some films are constructed so beautifully, and lensed so crisply, that they seem to glow. Life of Pi is a recent example, and it brought cinematographer Claudio Miranda a well-deserved Academy Award.

After being brought back to his home town by the sudden death of his brother, Lee (Casey
Affleck, left) is left with the question of what to do about his now parentless teenage
nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Manchester by the Sea has the same radiant allure, its northern Massachusetts fishing village setting portrayed with such luxurious sparkle that it literally feels like heaven on Earth. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes deserves equal recognition, come Oscar time.

The same can be said for just about everybody connected with this poignant drama. This luxurious, rustic setting is juxtaposed against star Casey Affleck’s heartbreakingly persuasive, all-encompassing depiction of grief. This is one of those assignments that transcends acting; within 10 or 15 minutes, we simply accept the fact that Affleck is Lee Chandler, an estranged native son brought back to his hometown under tragic circumstances.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has an ear for the way people actually talk to each other: true conversation, which often erupts in short-tempered bursts, as opposed to the carefully sculpted “movie talk” that generally passes for dialogue. He’s a methodical and unhurried filmmaker; this is only his third big-screen feature, beginning with 2000’s similarly impressive You Can Count on Me, with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo shining in the poignant saga of a woman’s awkward reunion with her younger brother.

It has become clear, with time, that Lonergan is adept at coaxing superlative, quietly lifelike performances from his stars. Affleck is by far the standout here, but he’s in good company; co-stars Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler complete the core ensemble, together enacting a story that illustrates the crippling, pervasive impact of guilt and anguish.

We meet Lee during his daily routine as a Boston-based janitor, solemnly dealing with clogged toilets, recalcitrant radiators and persnickety light fixtures. Some of the lonely tenants in question welcome his presence; others flirt awkwardly; still others are rude. Lee is uniformly stoic, to the point of appearing discourteous; we initially wonder if he’s on the spectrum, unable to properly process social niceties.

But then we realize no, it’s more a case of a man lost in a swamp of despair, and no longer able to navigate. Affleck moves with uncertainty, as if worried that the very ground might trick him into placing a foot wrong. His sleepy eyes fail to register friendly overtures, as if he’s perpetually stoned, yet he takes no drugs. He does, however, drown the remnants of a gray day with a few too many beers at the local tavern, at which point he may become a short-fused, belligerent drunk: picking fights as a means of securing a punishing beat-down.

All of this emerges in a deft, superbly assembled introductory montage; Lonergan is a master of small, character-establishing details.

Our mounting curiosity is shunted aside with a phone call; we can tell that the news is bad, even though Lee’s expression scarcely changes. He leaves immediately, arranging for substitute janitors as he impatiently navigates Massachusetts motorways, until reaching the hospital where — sadly — older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has just died.

It’s not a complete shock; a flashback illuminates an earlier hospital scene, as a young doctor — Ruibo Qian, gently memorable in this brief role — explains that Joe has been diagnosed with a heart condition that is guaranteed to kill him in the not too distant future. This news proves more than Joe’s wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol), can handle; she literally flees the room.

Lee thinks back on that moment, as he contemplates the current reality. He’ll have cause for many such memories, as the story proceeds; Lonergan uses each one to convey another significant detail — another piece of the puzzle — that gradually explain the wary, worried, sometimes hostile looks that follow Lee, during his return and subsequent stay in his home town.

Joe’s death leaves a wealth of details to be handled: funeral arrangements, financial matters, what to do with the boat at the heart of the charter fishing business that Joe ran with best friend and partner George (the reliably sturdy C.J. Wilson, who looks for all the world like he was born on a Cape Ann fishing boat).

Then there’s the issue of Joe’s 15-year-old son, Patrick (Hedges), now essentially left without a parent, Elise long absent by this point. Lee knew Patrick as a young boy, but the teenager before him now is all but a total stranger. Watching these two attempt to navigate their renewed relationship is by turns amusing, uncomfortable and embarrassingly intimate.

Lee’s heart is in the right place — he objectively understands what is required of him — but even these circumstances aren’t enough to bring him out of whatever imprisons his emotions. Patrick, initially deferential in the manner of any reasonably polite kid in the presence of an adult, grows impatient in the presence of such unrelenting stoicism. We see this in Hedges’ eyes, as Patrick wonders: What the hell is wrong with his uncle?

At first blush, this seems an awfully thin frame on which to hang a 137-minute movie. And yet Lonergan is so skilled, both as storyteller and director, that we’re captivated throughout, hanging on every word, expression and act.

Lonergan is particularly clever with small, spontaneous moments that make us smile — or weep — for their authenticity. Watch the way George shouts to his wife across a crowded room, trying to get Lee some food that he doesn’t want, during the gathering that follows Joe’s funeral; naturally, George’s wife can’t hear a thing.

Alternatively, consider the emotional wallop that erupts late one night, when Patrick has a weird reaction to packs of chicken tumbling from his overstuffed freezer: an initially odd scene that suddenly makes complete sense as a sleepy Lee reaches the kitchen, drawn by the noise, just in time to hear his near-hysterical nephew explain why he’s so upset. Wow.

Affleck impresses for the way he conveys so much, despite playing a character who keeps everything bottled inside; Hedges is equally remarkable at the opposite extreme, Patrick gyrating all over the emotional map, just as we’d expect from a hormonal teenager. He’s snarky, petulant and impatient, perhaps on the verge of becoming something of a bad kid, but still possessing enough of a conscience to give us hope.

Actually, we smile at the realization that Patrick is very much like Lee. And we’ll soon have cause to reflect that Joe clearly recognized this, and — in the careful manner of a father wanting to be well-prepared for the worst — took steps to protect his son and brother, even from the grave. (Such a clever twist, in Lonergan’s story.)

Williams navigates a similarly wide emotional swath as Randi, at first blush — via more of Lee’s memories — a typically tough, working-class wife trying to make the most of a husband who hasn’t quite abandoned his childhood. But Lee is single when we meet him, living in that barren Boston basement apartment; his return to Manchester prompts an inevitable reunion with Randi, and eventually a shattering conversation that Williams delivers with such raw, stomach-clenching intensity, that we wish for the ability to reach into the screen, and envelop her in a hug.

Chandler exudes protective strength and compassion as Joe, whom we get to know via Lee’s frequent memory/flashbacks. Joe is the family rock: the stable, practical older brother tolerant of the misfit Lee’s braggadocio — at a happier point, earlier in their lives — and quick to protect an adolescent Patrick from Elise’s mounting instability. Chandler excels at such sturdy, dependable characters, and has done so ever since his television work in Homefront and Friday Night Lights.

Matthew Broderick has a telling role as Jeffrey, Elise’s second husband, an outwardly polite, soft-spoken evangelical Christian who clearly regards himself as his wife’s “savior.” Broderick is superb in this brief role, Jeffrey’s warm, superficially welcoming smile masking an intolerant monster who clearly disapproves of Elise’s attempt to renew her shattered relationship with Patrick.

Finally, keep an eye out for Lonergan, who always writes himself small roles; he pops up in an eye-blink appearance as a Manchester pedestrian.

Manchester by the Sea is a warm, tender, unexpectedly amusing and deeply poignant depiction of familial love and — tellingly — the occasionally disturbing nature of a small-town dynamic. This is, without question, the year’s finest film thus far ... and I’ll not be surprised if that sentiment holds for what remains of 2016.

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