Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Love’s Austere & Lonely Offices
Everyone wanted to say so much that no one said anything in particular.
-Rudyard Kipling, “Captains Courageous”
No one can think of a gangster without calling to mind Marlon Brando’s husky mumble from “The Godfather”. I predict audiences will summon Casey Affleck’s performance in “Manchester by the Sea” when they encounter a taciturn blue collar worker. There is something universally penetrating about his curt answers and floor-facing gaze. Inevitably this leads his character, Lee Chandler, to unprovoked fisticuffs after a-few-too-many in the local bar. Is this a story of a wounded warrior enduring life’s many battles? Or is this merely a misanthrope acting-out?Kenneth Lonergan, the film’s writer/director, shows Lee to be a hero. Unfortunately he takes too much time making the point.
Everyone is an expert in “family drama”. It is in our DNA. Pity the poor auteur who must present his work in front of a panel of experts. To be convincing one must illuminate the shadows of unhappiness with the perfect balance of individuality, sorrow and hope. The audience of professional family members will be repelled by formulaic troupes. The pain is universal but the sadness is, as Tolstoy would say, “in its own fashion.” Lonergan knows that endless attention to detail is required. A true family portrait involves imbuing your work with the precision of the Hubble Telescope, which can spot a candle from 7,000 miles away. The audience must be oblivious to the rigor involved in recreating these intricate portraits of routine/ritual. It might have taken Lonergan years to shape the two lines a brother speaks to a nurse who tells him of his beloved’s death. Ditto for the manner in which our hero rebuffs romantic advances, scolds his charge, punches a window, grabs a policeman’s gun.… These moments must appear “spur of the moment”; an uninterrupted note in a symphony of family dancing. Strangely the exquisite solos are, at times, drowned by the chorus. The artist has been smothered by falling in love with his subject.
The first half hour of Lee Chandler’s tale is inauspiciously meandering. The superb virtuosic performances of the supporting cast (Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges) are absent. Casey Affleck’s embodiment of Lee, the handyman, is convincing but lacks resonance. He sulks while tending to a series of unglamorous tenements. The set design, dialogue and interactions speak of a brooding man punching the remaining time clock of his existence. This culminates in a dressing down from the landlord. The boss’ office, filled with the flotsam of small building paperwork, is yet another character in the tableaux. It is all first rate work. Unfortunately this film is not a Robert Altman panorama. “Manchester by the Sea” is a Eugene O’Neill paean to a family’s long days journey. So much of what is included in these segments, albeit exquisitely rendered, blurs the central narrative. Lee appears a congenital misfit rather than someone worth knowing. Redemption jumps to life the moment he receives the phone call - his brother is ill. The audience leaves the microscopic examination of diurnal lower middle class Massachusetts for the heartbreak and connection of the Chandler family struggle.
The physical journey from the dreary suburbs to scenic Manchester is marred by unfortunate editing choices. The film as a whole suffers from an extraordinary number of establishing shots and extended exit points. The rainy car ride sequence to the hospital seems to beg the question, “are we there yet?”. In addition this blight to an otherwise first rate film can be seen in the cinematography. The graphic giving the title of the film cuts during a pan of the ocean. This is cinematic equivalent of mismatched lapels on a blazer. Lonergan and his team demonstrate a mastery of their crafts that would seemingly eliminate such amateurish mistakes. Ironically it is the strength of the material combined with Lonergan’s theatrical training that hinders a crisper narrative. The gravitation to the big screen is a siren call to explore small paths but one must ensure they ride smoothly on the narrative’s main highway. The film fails to steer clear of presenting to the audience with the performers’ homework. Many of the extraneous moments work as acting exercises that build the actors’ knowledge base for their characters. Sadly showing this material obscures the Chandler family struggle. Lonergan understand actors and storyline, which makes for sublime moments. The challenge becomes threading the narrative to the precise size of the medium. Unfortunately Lonergan’s passion for the story leaves him to stay twice as long at the party. There is an unfortunate “twining” of sequences that half the enjoyment. There was no need for TWO scenes of Lee being extremely awkward with women; or TWO scenes of the band practicing with the lousy drummer; or TWO scenes of the nephew awkwardly trying to seduce his girlfriend; or TWO scenes of the nephew and his hockey coach…… Twining is not always bad. One can see Lonergan’s repeat action work wonders at times. The two funeral and morgue scenes both excel. The way one family member pauses and reaches out to the corpse. The abrupt exit of another. The pitch perfect choreography revealing complicated alliances. It’s all enough to forgive the extraneous wandering in the other moments. Unfortunately the overall effect is witnessing exquisite jewels emotional connection set amongst ponderous, well-rendered moments from a-day-in-the-life.
Closeness to the family drama blinded the auteur to a more refined telling of the Chandler saga. The same person who meticulously drew the heart-searing interactions between the uncle and nephew is, ironically, the same artist who gave us the laborious introduction to the uncle and his children. Thirty second would have sufficed to portray an absent, insensitive father and a overwhelmed, emotionally neglected wife. Perhaps the director thought overdrawing this scene was necessary in order to build a foundation for the late encounter between these two characters. That moment, in which harsh truths are recognized, is a touchstone of redemption and sorrow. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, as performers, needed to experience the former in order to reach the dramatic heights of the later. The audience need only be privy to their heartfelt final meeting. The hard work of the earlier scene is already enmeshed and need not have been revealed. The meeting of the nephew and his biological mother also suffers from over-telling. It could have been a quarter the length and had four times the impact. Once again Lonergan felt the duration would aid in explaining the later impact of the step-father’s email or the nephew’s sensitivity about being abandoned. Once again THE PERFORMERS needed the experience to give gravitas to their work… but not the audience. The director needed to put more faith in the unseen/offstage preparation. Unlike these “acting exercises”, the best sequences have a concision of movement and dialogue. When the the nephew gazes at the photos of his uncle’s children there is no need for words or even a reveal of the young faces. The previous scenes have set the stage perfectly. When the families’ embrace at the brother’s funeral, all the exposition is managed in the manner of the touch. The actors’ have managed to bring their past preparation to the moment at hand. When Lonergan shows trust he becomes the thoughtful writer/director. He knows how to deliver the economy of action as exhibited in the proscenium arch. When he over-explains he exhibits the callowness of thinking better surveillance leads to clearer storytelling. In short, just because film, unlike the stage, gives you the ability to travel (to the skating rink or ocean or hospital) doesn’t necessarily mean you should take the trip in public. What is de rigueur in preparation can be detrimental when showcased within the story.
“Manchester by the Sea” is about family members shedding assigned roles of childhood for the unexpected burdens of adulthood. The real crime falls under the Buddhist concept of “grasping”…. refusing to let go… “Back ups” must shed their comfortable habits and become full fledged caretakers. Others must embrace their limitations. There are no “good guys” or “happy endings” just people struggling with the grist mill of bad choices or bad luck while serving time in self-made prisons. The heroic escapes are born of enduring, without abandoning, and accepting what everyone already knows is true. Yes “Manchester by the Sea” is flawed…. but the director shares the same battle as the characters. The nephew’s mother, the uncle’s wife and the uncle himself, all know that the only way to be parents, guardians, spouses… is to stand at a distance and let their charges seek solace from others. Lonergan needed to step back. His creation would have stood taller without his needless pampering… but it still is a magnificent accomplishment. Caring too much and being over-involved are crimes of the heart and should be forgiven. The love shines through. The next time a middle-aged crank runs his mouth or acts inappropriately, the shadow of Manchester will inform my response. I’m sure many other audience members will feel the same way. Thank you Kenneth Lonergan for helping extend the boundaries of our compassion. What more can one ask of a mother, father, aunt, uncle, guardian?…. or a writer/director.