Life In All Its Colors: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea”

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Most American films about families–in fact, most American films–are about progress: in the course of two hours, happiness–or at least resolution–is achieved, and the characters move forward with their lives. But it didn’t used to be that way: before “Rocky,” films often ended unhappily, or at least ambiguously. These less-than-happy endings made movies a lot like life, and the lack of them is precisely what makes today’s films so unsatisfying and unreal. No wonder there are so many movies about superheroes today–an obvious fantasy is better than a contrivance disguised as the truth.

Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.

Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.

Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.

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