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Manchester by the Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is the heavily critic-worshipped third film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, MARGARET*). It’s a story about loss and family and people trying to salvage their fucked up lives. It’s not as devastating as some people make it sound, but also not as ultimately-uplifting or inspirational as maybe you would hope. It’ll probly make you tear up a few times and laugh a few times in its 2+ hours. It captures the ways family, friends and beer can bring you both solace and pain.

*[Please note that it is not one movie called YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, MARGARET. It is one movie called YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and then another totally separate one called MARGARET. And if I had written it as MARGARET, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME I would’ve had the same problem.]

*[Also please note that Lonergan wrote THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE and an episode of the cartoon Doug, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to mention those at all because right now we are focusing on his directorial work.]

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, OUT OF THE FURNACE, TRIPLE 9) is an apartment handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts, City of Presidents. We see him making his rounds, fixing things, responding to work orders, unplugging a toilet, etc. He’s clearly good at his job, but he’s also on the chopping block for sometimes telling off tenants who could use a good telling-off. In other words he’s a janitor who plays by his own rules.

But this is not a plumbing procedural. Lee gets a call about his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) being hospitalized in Manchester, an hour and a half away. He drops everything, but by the time he gets there Joe is dead.

Lee is the only person available to take care of family business, most importantly notifying Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, MOONRISE KINGDOM) and staying with him while things get straightened out. If you’ve seen the trailer you know that the will makes Lee Patrick’s guardian, which Lee is not okay with. So the movie is about him hanging out with this kid and trying to figure out what to do about the situation. Both of their futures are completely in flux here.

The story fills in with occasional flashbacks. John had congenital heart disease. Something was wrong with his wife (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 TO YUMA and GET CARTER remakes). Lee used to live here with a wife (Michelle Williams, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, SPECIES) and three young daughters. In the present he’s somewhat infamous in town, and liable to get in drunken fights with strangers at bars. Lots of information is withheld until later.

One of these flashbacks finally reveals a major event that puts everything we’ve seen in a completely different light. It’s horribly tragic, but in some ways a relief, because it shows that Lee has a better reason to be afraid of taking care of Patrick than just being a deadbeat. It’s an interesting relationship between these two. Lee is kind of more like an older brother than a guardian. So much so that Patrick tries to use him to distract his girlfriend’s mom so he can get it in there.

To me Patrick feels very true to life, because he’s a kid who doesn’t fit an obvious archetype. He plays guitar in a band and has two girlfriends, but isn’t some James Dean type or dreamboat. He’s on the hockey team and has anger problems but doesn’t seem like a jock. Hedges reminds me of Jesse Eisenberg mixed with a young Matt Damon.

I really relate to some of the ways Lee and Patrick process grief. They stay very calm, seem to not be too emotional, but later let it out in other ways. There’s a very good scene where seemingly unflappable Patrick suddenly gets flapped. He completely breaks down over something dumb, but it’s really about something else. There are two scenes where characters get mad at the men for making jokes, allegedly taking serious situations too lightly. Different people deal with these stresses in different ways, and they can clash. I wouldn’t read a gender assumption into the fact that the characters that react this way are both women. It says more about the women that the men of this family are attracted to than about women in general. Patrick has a girlfriend who might be incompatible with him in similar ways to how his mother was incompatible with his father. That’s how it works.

This is a family of people who argue all the time. It’s usually more funny bickering than hateful, but it’s gotta wear them out. Lee’s way of becoming the grownup is mostly saying “no” to Patrick. He doesn’t want to rearrange his own life the way he’s being asked to, so he’s looking for the easier thing instead of the thing the kid wants. It would be easier to sell the boat than get a new engine and keep paying to moor it until the kid is old enough to use it to make back the money.

Lee, his ex and his brother’s ex all had to rebuild their lives after tragedy, addiction or both. Williams’ character Randi seems to be having the most success at that. She’s also the only one that will talk a little bit about what happened.

I’m gonna get uncomfortably personal here for a minute. As I’m typing this up it’s the second day this week that I spent with my mom in the emergency room, two separate incidents. This morning I calmly “okayed” my way through a phone conversation that incorrectly led me to believe she might’ve died. A few of these characters have it way, way worse than I do, but I guess I’ve been through the emotional wringer enough these last couple years that the movies most people say they’re crying at haven’t been doing it for me. I was prepared for this to be real sad, and it didn’t even occur to me until watching it that it was gonna bring up memories about my dad dying last year. Then during the movie I realized it was the anniversary!

So I figure I gotta be emotionally bankrupt or something because I still only had 1 (one) tear. It was during the memorial service. Not really the saddest scene in the movie, but it reminded me enough of my dad’s that it got me. Most movies only have the graveside service, they skip the church part. Ironically it’s personal experiences that end up making me sad, but they’re also what desensitized me to these movies.

I respect this one for capturing the feeling of some of these life experiences in a more accurate way than standard Hollywood product often does. For example the way the business of making arrangements can calm you during a family emergency. He’s not freaking out about his brother because he’s making phone calls to get his shifts covered. Also the matter-of-factness of the scenes with the dead body, the weird mix of “oh shit, that’s my dead brother” gravity and mundanity, the awkwardness of feeling like you should see it out of respect or something but also not wanting to see it. These bits of awkward humanity make it feel a little more true.

And don’t worry, it’s not some kind of misery porn. There are at least two scenes where Lonergan takes pity on the audience and doesn’t make us witness something that would be really wrenching. Example: we don’t hear how Lee tells Patrick that his father is dead. We just watch their body language from across a hockey rink. Also, Lonergan has a pretty comical cameo as a random passerby who gets in Lee’s business. He’s kinda right but also he’s an asshole for getting involved when he doesn’t know these people or what they’re going through. Shut up and walk your dog, dude.

Alot of the talk on this one is about how good Affleck is in it, his awards potential, and also how that could be affected by some bad stuff that has come out about Trump-like behavior with women who worked with him on that Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary I’M STILL HERE. That’s sad to hear because he’s such a likable actor, and so natural a fit for the put-upon-underdog because of our familiarity with his more famous and square-jawed big brother Batman. We want to believe he’s our buddy. But actually it also fits with performances like this, where he’s likable despite his obvious damage and self loathing. We watch him like his friends (especially helpful family friend George, played by C.J. Wilson) watch him – with unwavering loyalty despite disappointment that we have to jump in and pull him off of some random dude he gets in a fight with at the bar.

So although this is a great performance it’s so close to what I imagine Affleck really being like that my preferred role for him this year was in TRIPLE 9, where being a tough ex-military police officer seemed like a bigger transformation.

When the movie was over I felt like I wasn’t disappointed in any way, that it completely lived up to the hype, but also that it wasn’t something I personally was excited about. But it’s been a week or two and I keep thinking about it. The feeling of it has really stuck with me. So I’m looking forward to part 2 or whatever.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 at 11:00 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “Manchester by the Sea”

  1. If all the plumbing procedurals I’ve seen are to be believed, that’s a job that requires a lot of fucking.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Majestyk, I needed that laugh today.

  3. I don’t mean to be a bummer here but I was excited about this movie until I learned about the accusations against Casey Affleck. It takes me a long time to get past things and I wonder if this is going to hurt my potential enjoyment of the film. oh and in looking for an article to link, his being nominated instead of Nate Parker is opening the door for people saying racism is involved. This is why we can’t have nice things.

    http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2016/12/12/uproar-after-casey-affleck-gets-golden-globe-nod-despite-sex-accusations-while-nate-parker-does-not.html

  4. Sorry to hear about what you’re mother is going through, Vern.

    It’s hard to ignore this film because it has received rapturous reviews, but I watched Margaret by Lonergan a few years ago, and despite wanting to like that film, I thought it was a complete mess. It seemed like it wanted to be this sprawling drama and character study, but it also seemed like it probably should have stuck to the main story about the main character witnessing that bus accident and the fallout from that. Everything else seemed at best superfluous or at worst kind of cliche. So I’ve been holding off on this one.

  5. Man, I had no idea about all that Affleck business. That’s some vile behaviour. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to view him as something other than an obnoxious hormonal adolescent. It doesn’t help that he can often look about 14 either.

  6. Vern, I often have a feeling of uncertainty when attempting to address numerous subjects and write in multiple tones within a piece, or even when simply trying to communicate with candor and honesty. This review proves it can be done. I hope things are alright with you, you have been a real inspiration to me over the years in so many ways. You are one of the great writers, consistently meaningful. Thank you.

    I loved Niketown, by the way.

  7. Thank you very much, that is very kind of you to say. I believe I’m doing pretty good overall, though trying to figure things out as always and worried about our country and all that. I’ve found it helps me to be honest about things I’m going through if they relate to what I’m writing about, so that’s what I do. Good to hear from you, I hope you’re doing well yourself.

  8. Crushinator Jones

    December 15th, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Vern, I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I wish her a speedy recovery from whatever ails her.

  9. I feel like I have to correct the record in the comments here and tell you that Margaret is not “a complete mess,” but is in fact a masterpiece, maybe the best film of the decade. You should absolutely see it.

  10. I really loved this movie. It’s so observant about how different types of people process grief and express their emotion. I’m not much like Lee in that way, but I have absolutely known people like him and everything about his behavior rang true to me. It’s a film that’s not afraid to go big and broad at key emotional moments, but it knows when to be subtle too. One touch I loved is when Lee is unpacking in his crappy basement apartment. Lonergan is careful to show him taking three photo frames out of his suitcase and putting them on the table, but he has the restraint not to show us what is in them. It’s a subtle touch but one that speaks volumes about Lonergan and the respect he has for the audience. It’s also a movie that knows a small moment of redemption is often way more powerful than a big one.

    I’m not sure how much of your online persona is true Vern, so I don’t know if you really do have kids or not, but I’ve got two little Crustaceans at home. I know there’s nothing more irritating than a parent saying “you’d understand if you had kids”, as if people without kids are sociopaths, but I often think about how parenthood has changed the way I connect emotionally with movies. There are things that never used to affect me before that I find absolutely devastating now. There are movies I’ve seen a thousand times that now I see in a completely different light. Having kids has messed with my brain chemistry to an extent I wouldn’t have thought was possible. There’s obviously a big scene in this movie that left me an emotional wreck, but what really kicked me in the gut is the monologue afterwards. Every parent has had a similar experience, where you leave your kids unattended and you have that horrible feeling in the back of your mind that the situation you’ve left them in isn’t 100% safe. And most of the time you have to have to push that feeling aside or you wouldn’t ever get anything done.

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