Manchester by the Sea (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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After a series of tragedies drove Lee Chandler away from Manchester, he has to return to get affairs in order when his brother dies suddenly.  Kenneth Lonergan writes and directs Manchester by the Sea, and stars Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, and Kyle Chandler.

The movies of Kenneth Lonergan don't seem to be a taste I'll ever acquire.  I enjoyed You Can Count On Me, though as time passes it seems Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney were responsible for its quality.  My reaction was more subdued to Margaret, which became a sort of relic other cinematic artists and critics have used to show the importance of a director holding on to their cut.  Now comes Manchester by the Sea (Manchester moving forward) and whatever tolerance I had for Lonergan's affectation toward white working-class Americans has met its end.

My frustration with Manchester reached its pinnacle when Lee (Casey Affleck) takes a nap and has a dream showing his daughter asking, "Daddy, can't you see me burning?"  In addition to being so on-the-nose with Lee's emotional state, the dialogue is a reference to one of the most analyzed cases in Freudian psychology.  This isn't something I'd expect a lot of audience members to know and if I wasn't so obsessed with Lacanian psychoanalysis I might not have been familiar with it.  But the inclusion of that line, Lonergan's other dialogue showing characters lord their better circumstances over Lee, and horrible "naturalism" in many scenes make Manchester an overwritten wreck of a movie.

Lines like, "Are you fundamentally unsound," show a writer using white working-class characters in a puppet show instead of examining their lives.

Lonergan's misunderstanding of white working-class woes is clear in the circumstances surrounding Lee's temporary departure from his job.  Lee is summoned to explain why he cussed at a tenant and is written to give a quick array of thinly veiled threats about the information he possesses which could get his boss in trouble.  It's an absurd moment, and the idea of anyone other than a white character played by Casey Affleck getting away with telling their boss these things betrays any real understanding of modern life.  Taken in isolation it might have been a good "end of his rope" moment for Lee, but grows more intolerable considering how many times everyone in Lee's life bends to the point of breaking to accommodate his pain.

The circumstances of that pain are as overwritten as the liberal-signaling inclusion of the Freud burning child case.  It's not enough that Lee takes crap on the job - we all take crap on the job - but he loses his loving if barely seen brother, gets all of his children killed in a freak accident, is suddenly thrown into a custody case for his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and constantly gets into bar fights.  Any one of those events would make for a fine character study but as Lonergan piles on pain after pain I felt Manchester move away from empathetic identification with Lee and toward a stacked deck challenge.  This changes the screenwriting question as an audience member from, "How will Lee handle these pains," to, "Crikey, how many more bad events can Lonergan cram into this story?"

Maybe this approach would have worked with a less steady performance from Affleck.  I'm shocked he won Best Actor in so many award programs because his work is boring in Manchester.  There's a difference between restrained and inert, with Affleck gravitating toward the latter with every mumbled line.  Some sparks of life fly out in the many flashback scenes peppering Manchester's landscape of pain but Affleck remains a non-compelling figure with his flat answers to every question asked of him.

This has the inadvertent effect of lowering the quality of any scene involving the two other major figures of ManchesterMichelle Williams is horribly used as Randi, Lee's ex-wife, who exists solely as a catalyst for Lee's pain.  Their "reconciliation" scene toward the end is a shambling mess of artificiality.  This is partly because of the scattershot way Lonergan writes the scene with Lee and Randi each asking and answering questions they think the other is posing.  But it's also because of the horrid pacing with too-long silences between words and both sounding like they're reading from similar scenes in different scripts.  Kyle Chandler is great in flashbacks as Lee's now dead brother Joe, and Manchester hints at a better story around Joe's heart disease with Joe trying to make life worthwhile in the time he has left.  But Manchester is Lee's movie, not Joe's, and we're back to Lonergan piling on the pain before long.

Kyle Chandler's decency threatens to overwhelm any scene he's in for the better.

Even the way Manchester is shot feels inauthentic.  Lee is presented as a statue of sorts, posed like a Ken doll in static environments where characters rotate around him.  It's true Lee's pain is the centering point of Manchester so as characters revolve around him it makes a certain amount of visual sense to keep Lee in the center.  But too often the surroundings look like the work of a dark satirist, piling up papers behind and around Lee's boss, having Lee arrive like a specter of death in black against the white of a hockey rink, and so on.  Lee doesn't make a joke out of his pain and the dialogue is written with such seriousness that the precise staging of some scenes is its own purpose instead of underscoring Lee's emotional state.

By the time Patrick started lording his wealth of connections over Lee and telling Lee, "You're a janitor," I was ready for Manchester to end.  It was just one more obstacle of pain for Lee to shamble over.  So we end roughly where we began and all we have to show for Manchester's length is a shade over two hours of crises piled onto crises.  I'm not immune to stories of catharsis, but Lee isn't compelling, and Manchester plays to liberal-minded critics so exclusively any semblance of white working-class insight dissipates.

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Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, and Kyle Chandler.

Posted by Andrew

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