Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Writer & Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes
Composer: Lesley Barber
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan, Matthew Broderick.

Why didn’t I like this movie? By all accounts I should have loved it. It is well directed, the cinematography is beautiful and appropriate, the acting is outstanding. I have always loved dramatic movies, especially ones that connect with very human and universal feelings and experiences. The critics loved it and I am one of those weird people who usually agrees with them! So why, why, didn’t I like this movie?

Casey Affleck (Ocean’s Eleven) is Lee Chandler, a very very sad man. He lives a solitary existence as a Massachusetts janitor/handyman in an apartment complex. He is also quick to anger, mildly with the tenants he serves, violently with random strangers in bars. One day he receives a phone call informing him that his brother Joe (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler, television’s Friday Night Lights) has died. Though sad, Joe’s death is not unexpected, he had been suffering of a heart condition for several years and thus had been able to prepare for his death and make several arrangements. Amongst the plans, Lee is surprised to find out that Joe has made him his the guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom). Lee is none to happy, for a component of the plans is for him to move back to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea. This town is a source of trauma for Lee, a place of memory whereas he’d much rather try to keep on forgetting. He is a notorious figure, someone people avoid, a walking tableaux of tragedy, loss, and this makes him a persona non grata. Lee survives on stifling and ignoring pain, and a return home makes this fragile way of life nearly impossible.

As I said, the acting is excellent. Casey Affleck is very good at making us understand Lee. He is a quiet man full of rage. When we finally discover halfway through the movie what has made him this way, it informs the first half of the movie, and provides a key for reading the latter half. Lucas Hedges plays teenager Patrick with a sympathetic yet defiant and at times even cheeky manner, he reads as real, one of the more natural and realistic portrayals of a high school I’ve seen on screen. Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) seems like too good an actress for the small role in the movie, until she is given an opportunity to finally shine near the end of the movie, and her scene then justifies her presence in the film and why she’s been nominated for an Oscar for this role. In fact, all three of these actors have been nominated for Oscars for this film. They did a good job.

The screenplay and the direction are natural, nearly effortless. Kenneth Lonergan was in charge of both, and knows what he’s doing. This is only his third film, but they’ve all been well received. I haven’t loved any of his movies as much as critics have, but he does have a skilled eye behind the camera. The cinematography is beautiful though. The small maritime town is rendered gorgeous even when the actions on screen are definitely not. The juxtaposition is thus rendered all the more stark and affecting.

So with all these good things going for the film, why am I left so cold? Perhaps because the film is bleak and unrelentingly sad, with not a single moment of solace or hope. Everything sucks and it always will seems to be the message of the film. Look, I don’t need a movie to be happy or look to the positive in order to like it, but I am looking for some sort of arc, a journey taken by the characters. In this film all we get is two and a half hours of a sad men being sad, but never too sad on the outside. I can’t tell if this movie is an indictment or a love song to toxic masculinity. Lee is so concerned with never showing the depths of his sorrow and anguish that he’d rather punch people, avoid loved ones, verbally attack employers, ignore the feelings of a teenager who has just lost his father, get drunk, even get close to harming himself, than try to have a single moment of genuine emotion. The film seems to be telling us that this is how a man should behave. Or is it telling us that this is the type of man this country has glorified and look at what happens to him? I don’t know. I know that this movie is extremely well made, but I couldn’t love it. I don’t know who this movie was for, I just know it wasn’t for me, even though I can admit that the movie is great.

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