“Manchester By the Sea”


Written on 12/7/2016″Manchester By the Sea”
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

I’ve been staring at my screen for over an hour, trying to pinpoint how I feel, or rather, how I want to communicate how I feel about Kenneth Lonergan’s epically understated, and fully realized psychological examination, “Manchester By the Sea”. It’s good. It’s really very, very good. But it’s also a little indulgent and way, way, WAYYY too long. I suppose there’s nothing to do other than unpack its pieces.

The Good:
The Acting, The Acting, The Acting…
Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson and Michelle Williams are extraordinary. Giant balls of covered emotion, each infuses their performance with quiet – lovely, full, heartbreaking, hilarious and devastating quiet. In fact, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen an American film where a director gave his actors permission to be this subtle. That it works as well as it does shows how well Lonergan the Writer can control Lonergan the Director. Affleck, especially, bristles with silent rage, and yet, is somehow utterly sympathetic. Hedges successfully manages to convey the confusion of his age, made even more uncertain due to the upheaval that disturbs it. Wilson, who has the unenviable task of representing the “New England Everyman”, does so with astonishing humanity. And Williams is, as always, simply perfect. Oh, Heather Burns is fantastic…owning her two small scenes.

The Photography…
As a New Englander who spent much of his pre-college life in a town not all that different than Manchester (Narragansett, RI), I can tell you with some certainty, that this film is utterly accurate in its representation of a New England fishing town. The sleepiness, the constant undulation of moored fishing vessels, and the lack of connection with city fashion, pretense and attitude are spot on, and, for me, anyway, hypnotic. I became incredibly homesick for a place I thought no longer existed.

The Script…
This is not a film about what happens…rather, it is a film about negative space…in a life, in a moment, in a memory, in a conversation. Affleck’s Lee can only focus on the outsides of conversation, as if actual communication has the same effect as a super bright light -bulb in an interrogation, which is incredibly difficult to write with any kind of success. But Lonergan manages this with  ease, and you never feel like you’re trying to fill in the spaces for him…that’s how full the emptiness is. The trailers portray a film about the after effects of death in a family, but it is really about the psychological toll of loss upon loss. It’s a beautiful, beautiful script. And it’s also very funny, thank god.

The Not So Good:
The Editing…
There is at least thirty minutes of driving scenes in the film…pretty to look at…exhausting when added to the hour and three quarters that make up the rest of the film. You will notice how long it is, even as you wish you didn’t. You want to feel like its length is warranted, but, alas, no. Which is a shame, because the scenes themselves are edited beautifully. They never linger too long, are as uncomfortable as they should be, and use an economy of words to lasting effect.

The Music…
So Lonergan, instead of utilizing a composer, has instituted various pieces of music – from choral, to classical, to jazz – as a means of informing the action…and how we’re supposed to feel about it. As a result, it feels a little bit like a Woody Allen film…the music almost always accompanying the driving scenes…helping to accentuate the beauty of the New England scenery the way Woody does with his famous shots of New York in, say, “Hannah and Her Sisters”. It’s not a huge problem, but as the unnecessary shots continued to mount, I felt myself wanting to take it out on the music – “enough with the music, PLEASE get to the next scene”. Which is a shame, because he has chosen some pretty well-placed compositions.

The Direction…or maybe Pace…yeah, Pace…
This goes to Lonergan’s choices, not the editing, per se. The film doesn’t really drag, but neither does it move. The goal is to make us connect to the discomfort of Lee. But once that’s accomplished, and Affleck’s performance ensures that connection pretty early on, it feels like Lonergan has no faith in our ability to stay connected. We do. Own it. We get it. We’re with you. Next, please.

Cameo Casting…
Simply put, you can’t use certain actors in tiny roles and not expect to throw us right out of the film. It’s a credited performance, but…sheesh.

Final verdict…
Yeah. You should see it. It’s a no-brainer nominee for several awards, and it’s well worth your time. BUT, if you can temper your hype-machine created high expectations of the film, you might forgive some of the elements I could not.

Written on 12/7/2016

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