Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Producer: Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh, and Lauren Beck
by Jon Cvack
One of our leads from Road to the Well, Micah Parker, was in Kenneth Lonergan’s "This is Our Youth", which is an awesome play, all taking place in a grungy apartment as two 20-something dudes talk about all things life in the 80s, doing a bunch of drugs and drinking, with a bit of romance as well. The play was at one of those small 50 seat theaters, though Micah and the rest of the cast were so good, and the material was so great that I never thought twice about where I was.
To be honest, when Micah told me it was a Kenneth Lonergan play, I didn’t recall the name. Later when I looked it up I saw that he wrote Margaret - an absolutely brilliant and beautiful film that was destroyed by petty legal battles over the material, scheduled for release in 2007, meaning it was probably done in 2006 at least, and wasn’t released until 2011. As it’s been five years, I can’t remember the details, but it was a perfect match for fans of In the Bedroom, The Ice Storm, The House of Sand and Fog, and other cerebral domestic dramas. The court case didn’t even conclude until 2007, tarnishing the film’s success.
I had been hearing that Manchester by the Sea was the greatest movie of the year since it first came out at Sundance. It seemed like a return to those domestic drama days, taking place at a small eastern town. I then started hearing it was a downer, confirmed when one of the announcers at Landmark told the crowd it was a 2 hour and 20-something minute film that’s really sad. I really don’t mean to take issue, but this kind of ruined my experience with the film, as I then was expecting some deeply sad movie, far sadder than it actually was, that I kept expecting worse and worse things to happen, never really reaching the level of sadness I was anticipating.
The story’s about Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman who we eventually learn has lost his children in a fire, now separated from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee’s brother Joe has had a heart attack and died, leaving Joe’s son Patrick to Lee. I will say that looking this up, I might have misunderstood the various timelines, as memories and present day interweave throughout the story. Let’s just say I never thought about how Joe left Lee his son, entrusting him even after Lee had lost his two sons in the fire. There’s something very cool about that, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll need to rewatch that again, so maybe it’s that miracle film where, like I for instance (which I didn’t like upon first viewing and is now my favorite film), I’ll grow to love it.
My main problem is that the characters aren’t all that interesting; as they essentially do just spend a lot of time sad. There are basically two extremes cutting together and that’s contentment and discontentment. Many moments felt flat and almost expected, like when Lee and Randi finally meet after years of not seeing each other. I’ve been trying to think of why this didn’t work for this scene, and can only chalk it up to that they were feeling exactly how I expected them to - Lee was stoic and stolid, Randi emotional and a bit desperate.
I think Casey Affleck’s a great actor, but playing the Stoic Man just seems to have been done so many times by him that it felt boring to see it again within such a melancholic film. There are moments where it works well, such as the various fights with Patrick, or talking to his many girlfriends. It was all pretty good; it just wasn’t all that great. I struggle to say anymore about anybody. Everyone was presented as simple people with common melodrama problems, responding either or after these problems occurred in the ways you'd expect.
When I go home for the holidays, and I meet old friends, or people I never talked to but know their faces from high school, or share holidays with my family, beginning to understand them as people, there are many who would never respond with such simple emotions. I think that goes for everywhere, with any tragedy, where you can peel back the layers and see the spectrum of emotions and responses. It’s anything but simple. Longergan never seems to peel back the layers far enough.
So what does it mean that “Manchester” became “Manchester by the Sea”, where the two sides of town - middle class and upper middle class - seems to be the focus? It all felt so white and privileged; not as a deliberate message, but as a response; as though this was the most Lonergan could find for a setting when looking at the country. Combine this with flat character and it all left me wondering what the point even was. Why should I care to talk about this sad movie? Of all the amazing things to explore in the world of an imagination and all the fascinating people in this world, this is what was portrayed. It seems like such a waste of possibility - the talent, the location, the structure that could have been explored. It's not a bad film; it's even pretty good. It just didn't feel like anything new.
BELOW: Their scenes are the best parts of the film
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