Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Caught between the Scylla of returning to face a tragic past and the Charybdis of living a frustrating present, Lee Chandler assesses the path forward in Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply affecting Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the SeaUSA
4*

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Jody Lee Lipes

Running time: 135 minutes

In his third cinematic meditation on loss, Kenneth Lonergan boldly interweaves two parts of storyline with devastating effect to create a rich tapestry of events in the past that explain, insofar as it is possible to explain flesh-and-blood people, the sombre emotional mood in the present. Manchester by the Sea is in no hurry to unpack all the emotional baggage. But the deliberate rhythm helps the viewer to digest the immensity of the trauma that stretches many years of heartache and to comprehend, if not always empathise with, the central character and his stunted reactions to the world around him.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor whose face shows little sign of life. He is currently living in Quincy, a city that falls under the Greater Boston area in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the film’s early scenes, we learn about as much about him as we will until the halfway mark. He fixes the plumbing in a few apartment blocks but has no social compass to guide him in conversations with the tenants. He barely interacts with the people around him. He goes to bars to drink and not to pick up women. And more often than not, he ends the night by getting into a fight with a total stranger.

But throughout this dour introduction, we hold on to the relatively optimistic opening scene, in which Lee, his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), are out on a boat. Joe is steering, while Lee is horsing around with his nephew, playfully comparing himself with his Joe and being a happy-go-lucky uncle.

But there is something eery about that opening scene. Besides the lack of any close-ups of the action and the characters, the boat, advancing as it does, looks almost static because the camera is moving at exactly the same speed. Our mind tells us there is movement, but the boat’s immutable composition dead in the centre of the frame makes us question our eyes. This is the perfect shot to kick off a film whose power lies in its gradual disclosure of the distinction between immediate and remembered events. Films, even those depicting events long ago, create an illusion of immediacy with the greatest of ease. Without any visual or audio markers to the contrary, the viewer is most likely to assume that any scene takes place in the film’s “present”, but with this shot Lonergan tips his hand, reinforcing both the artistry and the authenticity of the film.

We soon learn that this opening scene is set in the past. It is a memory. A few scenes (and many years) later, Lee learns that Joe has just passed away from congestive heart failure. He sets off to the hospital in the seaside town of Manchester by the Sea, where his awkward interactions with people he seemingly knows rather well immediately draw our attention. And then we get another flashback, set a few years earlier in the same hospital, when Joe learned his time on Earth would be much shorter than he had expected.

There will be many more flashbacks throughout the film. Some will seem happy; others will be devastating. At times, they appear to be traces of simpler times. At other times, they bring back hidden pain and sadness with the force of a sledgehammer. In retrospect, they are all tinged with sincere humanity but also an overwhelming melancholia.

For nearly half the film, Lonergan holds his narrative cards close to his chest. Lee learns his brother’s will designates him as guardian of the teenage Patrick. Lee, who views Manchester with a heavy heart because of all the death it has wrought on his family, wants no part in being Patrick’s caretaker father and has no desire to stay longer in town than necessary. The director gradually reveals the immense tragedy at the core of Lee’s character not as a stream but as a trickle that slowly brings to light the reasons for the present-day misery. But even the presentation has layers to it, and Lonergan’s film is nothing if not an onion that keeps peeling, continuously bringing the characters and the viewer closer to tears.

Halfway through the film, Kenneth Lonergan makes one absolutely inexcusable mistake: He injects himself into his film in the wrong way. Lonergan has had cameos in all of his films to date. In his début feature, the sublime You Can Count on Me, which might just be one of the best films of the past few decades, he starred as a priest, a role in which his deadpan discussion of fornication with a member of his congregation was one of many simultaneously serious and deeply comical highlights. In Margaret, he makes three short appearances at the other end of a telephone line as the lead character’s father. Displaying an awkwardness unmatched by any of his other roles, Lonergan’s trio of scenes traces the decline of a relationship but are overindulgent.

In Manchester by the Sea, the director shows up as a bystander on the street who loudly questions Lee’s parenting skills. This moment is harmless enough, but when Lonergan leaves, a separate shot shows the camera momentarily following him – an anonymous, peripheral character who never shows up again – before a cut back to Lee and his nephew, Patrick. This reeks of narcissism at best and incompetence at worst.

Although more bold than Margaret, this 135-minute examination of the way in which tragedy’s tentacles continue to leech happiness from the present is not a challenging film to watch and inspires little desire to be watched a second time. Lonergan deserves ample praise for making his flashbacks so unobtrusive and for tying them so firmly – yet initially inconspicuously – to the present-day narrative.

Time does not heal all wounds. We don’t forget the worst things that have befallen us. But while we mourn, the world is changing. And when we suddenly allow ourselves to open our eyes, perhaps the new configuration of people and relationships might just appear slightly more manageable.

Margaret (2011)

Superlative performances make director Kenneth Longeran’s gloomy comeback, released more than half a decade after shooting, a charm.

MargaretUSA
3.5*

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Ryszard Lenczewski

Running time: 150 minutes

By the time Margaret was finally released, it had aged so much it had probably passed its expiration date already.

Shot in 2005, it took a full six years before this film saw the light of day and was finally released for distribution. One of the main reasons for the delay was director Kenneth Lonergan’s insistence on a three-hour running time. Given enormous opposition on the part of the distributors, Lonergan eventually relented, and in the end his film is 150 minutes long.

Two and a half hours is an ambitious length for a film whose plot can easily be summarised, and although the film evinces much of Lonergan’s skill as a storyteller, it doesn’t do him justice as a filmmaker. One of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century was his début feature, You Can Count On Me, a masterpiece of contemporary cinema that has a small story about infidelity and sibling rivalry and first made critics sit up and notice Mark Ruffalo.

Ruffalo makes a return in Margaret, though his brief presence is a great disappointment: He plays a significant role in the development of the film and yet he appears only in two short scenes — both in which, it must be said, he delivers a performance worthy of enormous praise.

Taking its title from the eponymous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that speaks of grief and a child’s response to the concept of death as it is represented by dead leaves, an emotional reaction as strong as an adult’s reaction to the death of a friend, or of oneself. The poem is very appropriate, as it encapsulates the essence of the film’s plot very accurately.

Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a sharp-tongued teenager living with her mother and younger brother in the Upper West Side in New York City. She will soon join her absent father (played by Lonergan) on a trip to New Mexico and decides to try to find a cowboy hat somewhere in upper Manhattan. She fails, until she notices a bus driver wearing one on the job. She runs after the bus, waving to get the driver’s attention, but the driver only waves back, and not paying attention, he runs a red light and crushes a woman pushing a shopping cart over the road.

When the police ask Lisa whether the light was red at the time of the accident, she looks over at the bus driver (Ruffalo) and when he looks back, she takes it as a sign there is silent complicity between them, and she decides to protect him by saying the light was green. But she is deeply affected by the woman who was run over, a woman who slipped the surly bonds of Earth while lying in Lisa’s arms, and she tracks down the woman’s family.

But Lisa is a piece of work. She is a bit of a stereotypical teenage girl, with all the drama and snotty retorts to her mother that go along with it, and she always tries to ensure she has the upper hand in conversations, even if that upper hand is (usually) gained with sarcasm. She is immature even as she verbally abuses and bullies many people around her, breaking hearts and testing their good will towards her. Over the course of the film, she steamrolls many men in her life, and many women, including her mother, are also terribly hurt. The film is a good companion piece to Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, a film that navigates with an equally despicable but more vulnerable teenage protagonist, though Margaret lacks the latter film’s tight focus.

The film is not always easy to watch, but Lonergan finds raw emotion in the everyday details of New York that are dark but not without hope and presents that emotion with compelling clarity. Sometimes he veers a bit too far toward so-called gritty realism by inserting seemingly random fragments of footage into his scenes — a ferry on the Hudson here, a seagull soaring over Central Park there — but these moments do not contribute as powerfully to the viewer’s impression of realism as the cast’s performances.

Unfortunately, the film’s release puts it at a slight disadvantage, as the obviously significant events of 9/11 and the Iraq War seemed outdated upon its release, though the theme of revenge, for the death of one woman on the street, or thousands in the two World Trade Centre towers or in the Middle East, is obviously very relevant to the plot itself. This objection will certainly fade with time, and perhaps the film can be more fully appreciated after an interval of another six years.

Margaret is, if not a brilliant piece of cinema, at least another affirmation of Lonergan’s talent as a screenwriter and artist of human emotions. Paquin plays her vile character with great passion and supports the equally superlative cast, from J. Smith-Cameron, who plays her mother, a theatre actress, to side characters like the happy-go-lucky Paul (Kieran Culkin).