By the bye
Alrighty, back to the serious Oscar contenders after the fiasco from yesterday. This film coming from the mind of Kenneth Lonergan, the writer behind Gangs of New York and Analyze This, which didn’t surprise me in terms of the dry comedy on display in his latest film. However, don’t think this is a dark good time, this is depressing kill-me-now time because this is very much a drama with a few comedic lines to improve the mood. It probably won’t help that this likely comes from a personal place for the writer and director, but does that passion materialize into something deserving of “best of the year?” Let’s dig in.
We’re mostly following an irritable and lonely janitor named Lee (Casey Affleck) who gets his daily routine interrupted due to a call from a doctor telling him that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has suffered cardiac arrest. En route from Boston to Manchester, Joe dies and now Lee has to make the funeral arrangements in a town he left years ago and who’s people hate him. Things get even more complicated when Joe’s lawyer reveals to Lee that Joe left him custody of his son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), as well as the executor of the sixteen-year-old’s trust. This leaves Lee in a particular bind because he REALLY doesn’t want to stay in Manchester, and apparently no one else in town likes him there either for one very tragic reason.
The tragic reason isn’t revealed until halfway through the film when the bomb is dropped that Lee is going to be Patrick’s legal guardian. A strength of this film is that up to this major scene, Lee is clearly an asshole. He’s rude to everyone he interacts with, gets into random bar brawls (not necessarily because of drinking), and is very much out of his element when confronted with his nephew’s Teenage life. It’s especially disconcerting for Lee as Patrick and him have rarely bonded in the several years since Lee left Manchester. But keep in mind, as unlikable as Lee is first presented, he’s not unwatchable.
I’ve said before that a character is great to watch if they’re likable or interesting. Lee falls into the latter category through his various life choices, the way he interacts with people, and his increased discomfort with attempting to care for his nephew. Through his character and Affleck’s solid performance, we want to learn more about this guy as it becomes clear in flashbacks that Lee wasn’t always this way. While more pretentious films would not disclose that information, this movie makes the wise decision to show you exactly the critical turning point in Lee’s life. And man, is it not only understandable but it makes you second guess whether you wanted to follow Lee at all.
The apprehension other townsfolk felt towards Lee becomes much clearer, and harder to counter still when Lee himself almost seems to be denying himself any connections to others in his life out of guilt. Combined with some obvious PTSD he is suffering through, you come around to pitying the character even more by the end of the film. So you may be asking yourself, “where is the comedy in this absolutely downer of a story if comedy was your opening salvo, dick?”
Well voice in my head, the comedy comes from Lee and his extended family dealing with Joe’s death in an off-kilter way. Rather than mope around as in say, Things We Lost in the Fire, the characters trade cusses at each other and give glib comments about how screwed up the situation they find themselves in. These are also more obvious in the flashbacks where Joe takes center stage, and Kyle Chandler makes it clear why he’s such an important piece in this family circle. Joe was a flawed man, but his positives made his loss feel much more potent in this community. So all his surviving relatives and friends can’t be all miserable with his death, so that they try to cheer themselves up in any way they can.
And this is because the movie is all about dealing with grief in unique ways. A death of an important person in a life will definitely be felt by those they left behind, with some making beginner steps to moving forward with their lives and others who can’t shake their pasts. And Lee is someone who can’t shake his past mistakes and comes across much more worse for wear. The resolution this film packs isn’t a simple one, but it’s a complicated one that us human beings deal with. It may not be what you would do, but you wouldn’t put it outside the realm of possibility that others wouldn’t. So that’s a lot of deep things I’ve had to say about this film, but now onto the big question: why don’t I love this movie?
I’ve been praising the hell out of this movie top to bottom, but leaving the theater didn’t fill me with the sense of satisfaction from my other best of the year like Sing Street, Eye in the Sky, and Hell or High Water. My trepidation in claiming this movie is a “best of the year” contender is that Manchester by the Sea doesn’t capture my thoughts the way other dramas succeeded in doing so. It may come down to the theme of coping with grief, and my experience in dealing with the passing of a loved one was stupendously different from what’s on display here. It may also come down to the big reveal of Lee’s past being TOO melodramatic. His sins aren’t just disturbing, they would be enough to put someone in therapy for years in coping with survivor’s guilt alone. The thing is, the movie touches on that subject and then drops it entirely until the tail end of the film. Speaking of which, you’re also in store for a very abrupt ending. It’s not awful, but it feels like the movie rattled on for a bit before it decided it had enough and rolled credits when there was a perfectly serviceable ending available just a few minutes before the end.
I think another major issue I had was the pacing kept losing me in the film. There’s a good hour and a half that’s cinematic quality here, but there’s about 45 additional minutes that kept distracting me because either nothing was happening or the characters weren’t getting fleshed out. I call this “fat” in a film, because it serves no purpose at all. Nothing visually interesting is onscreen besides New England countryside (sorry doesn’t do anything for me) and some of the character interactions just feel like the film is spinning its wheels. Granted the majority of the character moments are meant to develop the characters, but some moments feel like they are there for their own sake. Even going into the territory of mumblecore…
Now don’t panic, it doesn’t get THAT bad that I wouldn’t recommend this film. I think it’s a damn fine film with fantastic performances from Affleck and Chandler, but there’s not enough meat for me to sink my teeth into compared to some of the year’s best. So going to this a very high, borderline on FULL PRICE, encouraging…