Saturday, 14 January 2017

Manchester by the Sea review

Despite losing out to 'La La Land' and 'Moonlight' at the Golden Globes (in most categories), Kenneth Lonergan's 'Manchester by the Sea' is being hailed as a modern masterpiece by critics the world over, and seems set to storm the Oscars. Hit the jump to hear my thoughts on this very interesting little picture....

Lee and Patrick
Casey Affleck is a goddamn good actor - perhaps more skilled than his (admittedly talented) brother, but somehow far less famous. We've seen him in 'The Killer Inside Me' (quite possibly one of the most disturbing movies I've ever witnessed); we've seen him in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'; and we've seen him in the phenomenal 'Ain't them Bodies Saints'. But now, in a strange twist of events, director Kenneth Lonergan has him cast in what could be the most honest and lifelike picture of the decade. Aside from a few instances of non-diegetic music taking front-stage (and by a few I mean 2/3 maximum), the film maintains a strict adherence to the principles of social realism - meaning that for all intents and purposes, 'Manchester by the Sea' feels like it's really happening. Whether or not that's something you want to put yourself through is an answer for you to establish.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler: a visibly hurt, damaged, and discontented janitor who lives off nothing in a box room, tells his clients to fuck themselves, and starts fights in dive bars after-hours. We, as the audience, can clearly see that something is wrong - something deeply irreparable.


Brooding
Indeed, later that day, Chandler receives a call informing him that his brother, Joe, has died; and that he must make his way to his old hometown - Manchester - to look after his nephew. He appears distant - perhaps even cold - as he views the body and bears the news: as if his emotional center has been knocked out after years of abuse. Lee becomes almost a sort of a puzzle-box for the audience to unlock: where does his deep seated pain come from; why is he so estranged from his family; why does he refrain from making friendships or niceties? The mystery thickens when he finally arrives in the town: the residents give him cold-hearted looks, mutter under their breaths about horrific stories, and inform each other to steer well clear of him.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks that inform the first half of the movie, we find out why.

Unfortunately, it is indeed a terrible truth: one which is too terrible, and too central, to mention here; and one which is sure to shake the audience to the core. I can't say too much of course, but one particular scene in which Lee shows his feelings incredibly strongly in a police office had me shivering with a mixture of fear, anxiety, and sadness. No, this isn't a happy film.

The boat on which much of the film takes place
Meanwhile, in the present, Lee attempts to sort the detritus of Joe's affairs out - along with his tricky relationship with Patrick (his nephew), a sex-obsessed and sullen teenager who has conflicting feelings over his new guardian and future. Of course, he makes the worst possible parent: consistently drunk, quiet and awkward to other parents, unsupportive, and emotionally drained. But, such is the strength of Affleck's performance that we know he cares immensely. When Patrick himself (taking after Lee in not really showing much emotionally) begins to break down, his uncle watches over him intensely to ensure he doesn't come to harm.

This is the route the film pans down. After the death and the reunion, there is the funeral to plan - the arrangements of which cause disagreement between certain parties; the future of Patrick and Lee to plan out; and the reunion of Lee with his ex wife, Randi (played by Michelle Williams). In perhaps one of the most emotional scenes of the year, in the final Act of the movie, they run into each other - and have an honest conversation after avoiding each other for so long. It's heartbreaking, moving, and intense all at the same time.

Of course, the rock at the center of this whole production is the wonderful Casey Affleck. His Lee Chandler is brooding and intense; with a hard outer shell, but a bubbling emotional turmoil within. He is almost omnipresent throughout the entire picture, which becomes perhaps more of a character study of a broken man than anything else. The sadness in his eyes, the droop with which he walks, his mannerisms, and his distinctive styles all provide evidence to the fact that we are witnessing an actor at the top of his game. There are no cheesy lines to be found here, nothing dramatic: only honest, awkward mumbling and pure emotion. He's a shoe-in for Best Actor.

Heart to heart
As you may have guessed, tonally, the film isn't for everyone. Although I didn't get round to reviewing it, when I saw 'I, Daniel Blake', I reasoned it to be the most depressing and downcast film of the decade. This has certainly changed the rankings. From the outset onwards, 'Manchester by the Sea' is filled with lamentation, regret, and sadness. Under the surface there boils anger and injustice. Yet, at the centre, there is love - and, although you yourself may reason that Lee never 'beats' his past in the movie (up for debate by the way) - he certainly moves forward in his most important relationship: with Patrick. And, for sure, there's a lot of darkly comedic moments: from the bizarre capitalistic flourishes of a funeral director, to the polygamous life of Patrick, if you're the kind of person who can laugh in the face of sadness, then there's plenty to laugh at here. In the (packed) screening I attended, the overall oppressive mood had the effect of leaving people unwilling to lighten up.

Palate and cinematography wise, we're in the social realist category, so I guess when the weather's nice, it's nice, and when it's shit, it's shit. Being by the sea (it's in the title, duh) there's a lot of nice landscape action - but the focus of Lonergan's film is more on the character than the plot or the scenery. It more than suffices, however - and the picturesque views of the fishing village (no, it's not Manchester in England) are worth a look.

Scenic
There are a few things I have to say in the negative, however. The film is over two hours long; and in the period after the enigmas of the plot have been revealed, and before the concluding minutes, it really did begin to drag for me. This section of footage could only have been around 20 minutes; but it just felt a bit one-tone compared to the rest of the drama. I also thought the ending, although finding hope in the miasma that we have just experienced, felt a little flat and anticlimactic. And, lastly, I really believe that this film could've benefited from a stronger score - classical and jazz piano make up the bulk, but at times (especially what I would call the key scene of the picture) I just don't feel that the choices work with the material. That was a common sentiment to my viewing companion, as well.

In the end, as you can see, 'Manchester by the Sea' is a supremely well made, incredibly affecting, and devastatingly powerful film that is aiming to masterpiece status - despite, to my mind, not quite reaching it. It's facets are bolstered by a career-best performance by Casey Affleck; and, even in the unlikeliest corners, it finds a glimmering sense of hope. It's just up to you, dear reader, to decide whether you want to gaze into the abyss before reaching it.
'Manchester by the Sea' gets 4 stars!


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