Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 25, 2016 12:00 am 
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Harrowing fun in New England winter

There is a lot of raw emotion in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea that makes it real and, by fits and starts, original. The material isn't new at all - a depressed ne'er-do-well given to barroom brawling, a teen who loses his dad, a couple split by tragedy - but the handling of it shows Lonergan's touch, and the acting is sometimes splendid, nearly always on the part of Casey Affleck, as the ne'er-do-well, and Lucas Hedges, as the bereaved teen, and theirs is the central relationship. There is a lot going on, but it all revolves around them. This is a complex and enjoyable film, despite its grimness; it's both flawed, and brilliant. It's a little too long, and some of the music is annoying. But it's splendid stuff, full of wonderful scenes and memorable small touches you want to watch again. Its high praise is deserved.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a janitor in a suburb of Boston. It is winter, and Massachusetts in winter is the setting for events. The film has a love affair with Essex County, the northeast corner of the state, boats and fishing, dry New England mindsets, and the accompanying snowy landscapes, which dp Jody Lee Lipes captures with a cool beauty in panoramic shots that punctuate the action. The film has a very keen sense of place, which always helps make emotion feel authentic.

The early part of the film is a grim, somewhat humorless comedy, Lee dealing with crabby tenants and their little problems. That is mere prologue, and he's soon back in his hometown (named in the title) dealing with the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) from a premature case of congestive heart failure - then with being, without prior warning, made responsible for Patrick, Joe's now 16-year-old son (Lucas Hedges, who offhandedly nails his every line, and has some zingers).

As Lee's told this by the lawyer, the scene is intercut with an elaborate flashback exposition, a little over an hour into the film, of a tragedy that in a sense kills all suspense and lays out the facts too bluntly: when Lee says he can't move back here to care for Patrick, we may know why better than he could articulate.

The film is at once very funny and very sad. For the time being, though Lee fights the idea of being Patrick's custodian and of moving back, he is in charge of the boy, and it soon emerges that Patrick has more of a life than Uncle Lee. He's on the hockey team and another team (he's playing hockey, violently, when he gets the news of the death), he has two girlfriends, he's in a band. He is a darling of the ladies. He wants to keep his father's fishing boat, though the engine is giving out. He wants to finish high school with his friends; he has a lot of them. Lee is a maintenance man. Why should Patrick move to Boston? He also hates the idea that because it's a cold winter, his father's body is to be kept under refrigeration in Beverly, where the funeral home is, till spring when the ground is thawed and he can be buried in the cemetery in Manchester.

This is a story of responsibility thrust upon one unsuited to it, not unlike the subject of Lonergan's memorable debut film You Can Count on Me. Casey Afffleck shines as he embodies a terrible loser who yet has a lot of heart, whose aspiration to do the right thing takes on a quietly tragic dimension. Skirting on the edge are other memorably flawed individuals. Michelle Williams delivers a searing performance as Randi Chandler, Lee's ex-wife. There is a random encounter between Randi and Lee near the end that Mike D'Angelo says is so "emotionally harrowing and in such a radically unconventional way" that the prospect of "enduring" it a second time frightens him, even though he wants to watch the film again in hopes that the flashbacks, particularly of the tragedy, will make sense as more than mere exposition. These flashbacks in fact, though powerful, don't seem inserted with commanding logic. The late Joe Chandler's wife (Gretchen Mol) is a recovering alcoholic with a very Christian new husband (Matthew Broderick) and a shaky hold on normalcy and sobriety. She tries to come back into Patrick's life and he hopes this could be his safe haven.

Patrick uses pizza, his pals, and his two girlfriends innocent of each other's existence, whom he's trying to bed, with uneven success, to numb the pain of losing his exemplary father. He only breaks down once, memorably. That is one of many scenes where Lonergan wonderfully skirts the edge between raw and funny that characterizes some of life's most difficult moments. There is originality and intelligence in the focus on this edge, which makes us watch each scene with fresh eyes. Casey Affleck is from Massachusetts, and he has the quintessentially New England voice - dry but with a little break in it - that conveys depths of hurt under a tough facade with almost every line.

The movie doesn't end very satisfactorily. It takes us through a lot of very good stuff, and then offers a resolution that's almost an afterthought . But there is just a wealth of fine material here.

Manchester by the Sea, 137 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016; 17 other festivals, including Telluride, Toronto, New York, Vancouver and London. Theatrical release 18 Nov 2016. Screened on West Coast release 25 Nov. France 14 Dec., UK 13 Jan. 2017. An Amazon Studios Release. Ranking very high in ratings, Matacritc 96%, second only to Moonlight (99%).

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