Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bathed in Sorrow: Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea 

The classically framed images of the water that open Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, warmly captured by cinematographer Jody Lipes, set its leisurely pace. This is a domestic tragedy in the measured, escalating Eugene O’Neill mode, and like O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night and its fictive sequel, A Moon for the Misbegotten, its milieu is Irish-American New England. Lonergan, a playwright who turned filmmaker a decade and a half ago with You Can Count on Me, is aiming high, and though I don’t mean to suggest that he touches the heights of O’Neill’s great dramas, the movie is an impressive achievement – and a devastating one. The protagonist is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor in the Boston suburb of Quincy, who returns to his hometown, Manchester, on Boston’s north shore, when his brother Joe dies of the congestive heart failure with which he was diagnosed seven or eight years earlier. At the reading of the will, Lee is taken aback to find that, without consulting him, Joe has made him the guardian for Joe’s sixteen-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). (Joe’s alcoholic ex-wife, Elise, hasn’t been in her son’s life – since Patrick was a little boy.) Since Patrick is vehemently opposed to leaving school and friends to relocate to Boston, more than an hour away, the only alternative is for Lee to move back to the place he ran away from after an event that shattered his existence – and his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams), who still lives in Manchester.

Though the crux of the problem is Lee’s discomfort with returning to the scene of his personal tragedy – which Lonergan hints at obliquely but doesn’t reveal until the mid-point of the picture – we can see from the beginning that Lee doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to be anyone’s guardian, even though he was close to his nephew when the boy was growing up. The scene that opens the film, where Lee horses around with young Patrick (Ben O’Brien) when he and Joe (Kyle Chandler) take him out on Joe’s commercial fishing boat, is in stark contrast to the sequence of short scenes that follow, where we see what Lee’s social interactions are like in the present. When he repairs the blocked toilet of one of the tenants in the four buildings he services, she goes out of her way to show him how grateful she is to him for taking on such an unpleasant task and even gives him a tip. But he’s stiff and awkward with her; he doesn’t know what to do with her instinctive kindness. Another tenant, furious because he can’t come with a quick fix for her issue, is brusque and insulting. He mouths off to her, and though she’s impossible, his response would get him fired if his boss (Stephen McKinley Henderson) weren’t obviously fond of him. A young woman tries to make a connection with him at a bar but he freezes her out, and later in the evening, now wasted, he starts a fight with two businessmen he thinks are staring at him. Most of the time Lee is tuned to one of two emotional stations: guarded or pissed off. When he gets the call that his brother collapsed on the boat with a heart attack and arrives at the hospital too late, he doesn’t know what to do with the medical staff’s expressions of sympathy or even that of Joe’s best friend George (C.J. Wilson), who worked for him (and brought him into the hospital). Lee looks like he’s seething with anger – that seems to be the only way he knows how to process the loss of his brother, with whom he was close. He maintains an even keel with his nephew most of the time, and their history as well as Lee’s intolerance for any kind of bullshit ensures that he’s always honest with Patrick. But the kid’s habit of challenging him, which comes out of a mixture of his own grief at his father’s sudden death, his bafflement at the situation he finds himself in, his staunch resistance to changing anything else in his complicated life and the usual teenage narcissism, often draws blanks from Lee – little moments of paralysis while he tries to figure out what the hell’s expected of him. And often his reply to Patrick is that he doesn’t want to talk about it, which, naturally, never satisfies Patrick.

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck

Lonergan – whose last movie was the complex, affecting 2011 coming-of-age movie Margaret – gets the New England Irish psyche in a way that Clint Eastwood’s garlanded mystery melodrama Mystic River, set in South Boston, never even began to. Adapting Dennis Lehane’s similarly overheated novel, Eastwood was determined to make a point about his characters’ inability to deal with their feelings in every scene, and the result was that no one’s behavior was plausible for an instant. (When the friends of the main character, played by Sean Penn, came to his house while he was mourning his murdered daughter, no one even thought to throw a supportive arm around the poor tortured bastard.) Lonergan’s characters, by contrast, display many responses to overwhelming circumstances; like O’Neill’s, their anguish, however displaced, takes a variety of forms. They yell a lot – they’re scrappers. But when, in one of the movie’s many flashbacks, Joe learns, with his brother and his wife (Gretchen Mol) and father (Tom Kemp) around him, that he has heart disease, his impulse is to make jokes. It seems to be a pretty healthy reaction to bad news, though it makes Elise so furious that she storms out of the room. Joe is blunt-edged and he can be combative, but he’s never far from his tender instincts, and Chandler, in just a handful of scenes, sketches in all of this man’s qualities: his robustness, his manliness, his warmth, his humor, his sense of irony and the ridiculous, his capacity for surprise. It must be obvious to anyone who’s been watching Chandler for the last decade – not just in his extended work over five seasons of Friday Night Lights but in the first season of Bloodline and in his supporting performances in The Spectacular Now and Carol, in widely divergent roles, that he could be the finest character actor in the country right now.

Patrick is more bullheaded than his dad – you could say he’s a more extreme (and of course adolescent) version. When we first see him in the present, he’s being benched by his hockey coach (Tate Donovan) for fighting and cursing, and he’s not above using obscenities on his uncle when Lee fails to behave as Patrick would prefer him to. (Lee is sufficiently understanding of what his nephew’s going through to let most of these eruptions pass without comment.) Lucas Hedges made an impression in the small part of Jeremy Renner’s son in Kill the Messenger, and his sensitive, unusual appearance in the NBC miniseries The Slap distinguished him even among the plethora of superb performances, but he’s so fresh in Manchester by the Sea that it took me a while to realize I’d seen him before. Patrick is a perfectly normal teenager, not especially imaginative but fully charged emotionally, and he has the confidence that often goes along with brawn in a teenage boy (he’s on the basketball team as well as the hockey team), as well as the popularity. He has two girl friends who don’t know he’s dating them both – Silvie (Kara Hayward), whose proprietary motherliness strikes Lee as presumptuous (it is), and Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), the vocalist in the awful garage band he plays with. He’s sleeping with Silvie, while his physical relationship with Sandy is, he explains to his uncle, still in the “basement business” phrase. The problem for Patrick is that, while Silvie’s parents allow her to stay over at his place – under the delusion that they sleep in separate beds – he and Sandy have to make their clumsy way during alleged study sessions in her bedroom, which are too brief and continually interrupted by her vigilant mother. (Joe didn’t enforce any sexual restrictions on his son, and Lee doesn’t either, though this is one of those cases where he isn’t prepared initially for the fatherly role he’s now being asked to play with his nephew.) These glimpses of teen sex, fumbling but resolute, are hilarious.

The wryly comic side of Hedges’s portrayal of Patrick keeps the movie in balance; without it, and especially without the comedy in his scenes with Casey Affleck, which are sensationally well written and directed, the movie might be too upsetting – especially in the second half, when Lonergan lets us in on Lee’s heartbreaking past. They also make the moments when Patrick can’t help confronting the loss of his dad more layered. When Lee picks Patrick up at school to tell him Joe is gone, he asks him if he wants to view the body, and the kid thinks he can handle it. But he can’t. He strides into the hospital morgue, glances quickly in the direction of the body, then turns around and heads out, tossing a speedy thank-you to the attendant. He doesn’t talk about the experience afterwards, but the fact that his father’s corpse has to stay in a morgue freezer while the details of the funeral are worked out gets under his skin, and back at home, when he can’t slam the door of the kitchen freezer shut and packages of frozen chicken wind up on the floor, he has a full-blown panic attack. (This is one of the most astutely observed sequences in the picture.)

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck

It’s Affleck who has to bear the lion’s share of the tragedy in the movie, and it’s both a surprise and a relief to discover that he’s up to it. Until recently I never cared much for him as an actor; he always seemed puny to me, and little-boyish, with a high, tinny voice that made it difficult to take him seriously when he started getting grown-up parts. But in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the lyrical 2013 feature by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon), where he played a man who breaks out of prison to get back to his family, he had a mournful depth that solicited your attention. In Manchester by the Sea he does something quite difficult. He plays a man who’s so pressed down by ill fortune that he can’t get up off his knees; the arc of his character is his effort to conquer his past on behalf of the nephew he loves, but he fails. “I can’t beat it. I’m sorry” is his final confession to Patrick, who doesn’t understand why Lee can’t face the prospect of staying in Manchester, where he can’t help running into his ghosts at every turn – especially when he comes face to face with his ex-wife. It’s hard to think of movies built around characters who begin as trapped as Lee does and can’t fight free. (A friend reminded me of one: Rod Steiger as The Pawnbroker.) The role of Lee Chandler requires the actor to make the stages of the character’s despair compelling, and I think Affleck achieves that, especially in the flashbacks – where we see how desperately Lee needs to be punished for something he did unwittingly – and in his last scene with Michelle Williams, where Randi begs him to spend a few minutes with her and he backs away in horror. He tells her that he has nothing left, but the truth is that he has nothing left but pain. When he sees her, his ability to negotiate a conversation melts away; he’s an open wound.

Williams is marvelous; the whole cast comes up to the mark, including Josh Hamilton as the lawyer and Heather Burns as Sandy’s warm-hearted mom, who tries gamely and hopelessly to engage Lee (possibly romantically). The only member of the cast who doesn’t come through is Gretchen Mol, but it’s not her fault: Patrick’s mother Elise and her new significant other, Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick) are the sole characters who don’t seem to have enlisted Lonergan’s empathy, but Broderick has his gift for finding the comedy in awkward, stiff-necked characters to draw on, and he gets away clean, while Mol’s Elise comes off as a caricature. Lonergan himself shows up in a nifty little scene as a stranger who happens to walk by Lee and Patrick when they’re duking it out at full volume over one of the sources of tension between them – the fate of Joe’s boat.

Aside from Mol’s character, my only quibble with Manchester by the Sea is Lonergan’s use of music – excerpts from Handel’s Messiah and his “Sonata for Oboe and Piano” as well from Massenet’s “Chérubin.” I don’t think that his choice of O’Neill as a model inflates the movie; it gives him something worth reaching for. But there’s a certain pomposity to his insistence on classical music, as if he were announcing the seriousness of his intentions. He doesn’t need to. The movie stands on its own merits.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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