Back again, am I. And off we go to watch and dissect another filmic wonder.
“What are we seeing today, Frog?”, you might screech.
Manchester By The Sea has gained some serious steam recently – it’s an unstoppable awards-gobbling behemoth of an Indie-flick. It’s hotly tipped to win its lead actor an Oscar, and to contend strongly in other categories.
So, is it any good?
Read on, my friends.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you likely know the plot in detail – loner Lee Chandler returns to his small homely hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts (which is actually right by the sea, interestingly) after the death of his older brother Joe. He is surprised to learn he has been named sole guardian to his nephew Patrick, and must reconnect to his old life, including his ex-wife. Drama, of course, ensues. Or at least, drama happened before the film, and we get to flashback to lots of it in place of any drama happening during the course of the events the film covers.
Lee is played by Casey Affleck.
Joe is played in extended flashback by Kyle Chandler. He’s one of those “That guy” actors, despite the fact that he’s very handsome and not exactly a character actor. You might know him from Netflix’s Bloodline or Super 8.
Patrick is played by Lucas Hedges, who if you’re anything like me, you’ll kind of think you know him but you can’t quite THE ANSWER IS MOONRISE KINGDOM.
How do they fare? Well, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, the guy who’s Oscar is in the bag.
The Forgone Conclusion, Casey Affleck.
Have you seen Gone Baby Gone? Affleck plays a quiet drifter cop who must contend with a twisty missing child case by loping morosely around Boston. Or how about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Incredibly Long Title? Affleck plays a quiet drifter cowboy who must contend with a twisty Brad Pitt by loping morosely around the old West.
Casey Affleck is like the opposite of Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks plays the everyman with incredible skill and dexterity. Casey Affleck plays one man, but by God he gets so many fucking shades out of that one man, most actors can only sit and stare in disbelief.
Casey Affleck is really terrific in this film. He never showboats, he never over-emotes. He barely emotes at all. The entire film is constructed around watching his emotionally stunted janitor unfurl ever so briefly before deciding it just isn’t worth it, and he just isn’t able. He’s utterly brilliant. He deserves every award he can get.
Lucas Hedges, too, is wonderful. He’s a very believable teen, playing cocky nonchalance at his father’s death until it catches up with him in an incredibly realistic (and very familiar) panic attack scene. He’s really great.
Unfortunately… the rest of the film is just a fucking mess.
Yes, yes, grab the torch and pitchforks. But seriously, Manchester By The Sea has a huge heap of problems that really bothered me.
It has been a long time since I noticed bad editing in a major film. One of the basic tenets is to seamlessly blend takes so that the audience is not even aware of the cut, unless you really want them to be. There are several moments in Manchester of people sitting in chairs or talking where actors heads or arms move significantly, or postures shift noticeably , in cuts between mid, wide, and close-ups.
Not only that, but there are random cutaways to characters and actors that have no real bearing on the story, and their frequency builds a significance in the audience’s head that isn’t meant to be there. In one scene, Lee applies for a job with an old ship-worker friend. The film cuts about 5 times to a woman in a back office listening. After Lee leaves, she scolds her co-worker. She is never seen or heard from again. In another scene, Lee and Patrick have an altercation on the street with a passerby. The two leads get into their car but mid-conversation, we cut back to the random man, walking gruffly down the street for literally no reason other than that’s Kenneth Lonergan, the writer/director of the film.
Cars back out of driveways for either ten seconds too long, or they barely start to back up before immediately cutting away, as if the editor meant to cut before it moved at all. It’s truly jarring, and it quickly betrays the film for what it is – an acting showcase, where the performances matter more than any technical proficiency. The filmmakers clearly decided to use the best takes over the most fluid ones, and that leads to a lot of odd moments. It’s a real shame, because once immersion fails and you’re pulled out of a film enough times, you start looking for other loose threads to pick at.
The female characters in the film are pretty brutal. Most women in Manchester, Massachusetts are angry nags, recovering alcoholics, or sexy teens who like sexing and not a lot else. They circle around the men in their lives, patting them on the back when they’re sad, eager to provide support for their man-angst but never really getting to fully experience or develop their own.
Gretchen Mol, playing Patrick’s mother, does good work with her two scenes – one in the past, where it is inferred she is an alcoholic narcissist, and one in the present, where she is reformed and a born-again Christian and engaged to a man who is played, in the most disbelief shattering THREE MINUTES, by Matthew Broderick.
Seriously, Broderick’s presence here borders on delirious. One of those real “what were they thinking?” moments. He has nothing really to do with the overarching arc of the film, and yet his presence and movie-star billing suggests he will factor into the film far more than he does. His name in the credits builds completely unearned anticipation to what amounts to a non-entity, played with his usual stiff robo-smarm.
As the film wanders nonchalantly through it’s beats, we are treated to the film-school level of metaphor that Lonergan gleefully revels in.
Joe’s body is preserved in a freezer until the ground is soft enough for burial. Later, Patrick has a panic attack when putting meat into a freezer. Frozen Meat = Frozen Daddy. Get it?
Lee cooks sauce and burns it, remembering his own tragic backstory. Something burning = Something burning. That’s not even a metaphor. That’s just… that’s just the same thing…
AGH. This is really upsetting. This film was supposed to be deadly. What’s GOOD???
Michelle freakin’ Williams.
Of course, a lot is being written of Michelle Williams’ performance as Randi, the woefully named ex-wife of Lee. She is, as always, wonderful in this film. Unfortunately, she’s in the film for maybe six minutes total in order to alternately sneeze and cry near Casey Affleck so he can do some sad acting or drunk acting or maybe both.
The crux of the relationship between Lee and Randi is told in a flashback (again, one which has about 3 too many cuts back to Affleck’s anguished face in the static present), and it’s genuinely very sad. It’s also, if you’re hovering around the question of whether the film is good or not when it happens, laughably overbearing and completely relentless in it’s “TRAGIC BACKSTORY” histrionics, accompanied by an absolutely ludicrous. snicker-inducing score that sounds like Hans Zimmer passed out face-down on a single note on the Interstellar organ.
Disappointingly, the enormous event in the flashback is spelled out in all its pornographic detail, with the attendant bodybags and interrogations and attempted suicide-by-cop. But there is no real scene in this stretch involving Randi, or even Randi and Lee, and the “terrible things” she assures the audience she definitely said to him off-screen, contextualising her feelings for them, but not for us. The film could have done the complete opposite, and made Randi a character with depth while leaving the true details of what really happened a mystery. Ambiguity is useful only when it illuminates your characters. Sadly, Lonergan takes Williams’ sterling work and fashions it into nothing more than a stick with which to beat a few tears out of Affleck. Their final scene together is frustratingly inert where it should be unbearable.
Honestly, I was crushingly disappointed by Manchester by the Sea. I was really looking forward to it. I really wanted to love it. I really wanted to like it. It does have many moments of power scattered throughout it. Affleck and Hedges have many wonderful scenes. Williams plays what she’s given to the hilt. But it’s dogged by characterisation issues, stale “loner-guy” tropes (alcoholism, monosyllabic responses, about 15 “poor-me” bar-fights), and some off-putting editing choices.
There is one wonderful and powerful shot that encapsulates the entire film. It involves framed photographs, and it really hit me in the gut. We don’t see the photos. But we know what they are of. It’s a wonderful moment, played with almost unspeakable sadness by Affleck. It’s the kind of moment any filmmaker is lucky to capture.
Kenneth Lonergan clearly is very proud of that moment.
Because he repeats it.
One time with Lucas Hedges, aswell. For him to get to be sad too. About the photographs.
They morph from carefully considered, to filmmakers shorthand, to cynical, guaranteed “gotcha” moment. All in the space of 30 minutes.
That’s Manchester by the Sea all over, really. It can’t just let the moment be.