Friday 3 February 2017

Manchester By The Sea: A bleak, blistering drama in which 'redemption' is a dirty word

Deep blue Sea: Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck

Please note: This review contains mild spoilers

Manchester By The Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes

If true horror is being trapped forever in a loop of grief, guilt and self-loathing, then Manchester By The Sea is, by any measure, horrific. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's third film is excoriating stuff; it's emotionally draining to watch, it burrows under your skin and digs its fingers into your very soul. Great cinema has always been able to make you feel, but this makes you hurt.

Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, called home from Boston, where he works as a janitor, to the titular US seaside town after the sudden, but hardly unexpected, death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee is a bitter, angry and unlikeable man but the reasons for his abject demeanour and awful behaviour aren't immediately apparent (they involve ex-wife Randy, played by Michelle Williams, and are eventually revealed in full heart-shattering detail). In something of a shock for Lee, Joe's will stipulates he be named guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and return home to Manchester full-time to take care of him. But Lee can barely look after himself, let alone a headstrong young man whose thoughts rarely stray beyond girls and ice hockey...

You can just imagine how this would play out in some hands. There'd be learning, hugs, redemption, forgiveness, and a final scene with everyone sat round a Thanksgiving dinner table. If you're expecting that, please don't. Manchester By The Sea doesn't do heart-warming and it certainly doesn't do redemption. Lee has no idea how to function in the real world, what's more he doesn't want to function there either. He has pretty much given up. His character barely develops, not because Lonergan's writing is poor, but because he has been dealt a blow from which he can not only never recover but doesn't feel he has the right to. The purity of his suffering is almost religious, like something out of Martin Scorsese's Silence.

What's interesting, though, is how Lonergan teases the kind of movie this could be, before deftly disappearing off in another direction altogether. In fact, he delights in confounding your expectations at every turn. The contents of Joe's will (a way of trying to yank Lee back to some kind of reality) and Patrick, the scrappy nephew with whom Lee banters and bickers, are, on the face of it, typical Hollywood fare. There's even an opening scene in which we see 'Paddy' as a young boy on a boat, fishing and joshing with his uncle (dad Joe almost unseen in the background in a portentous bit of foreshadowing). You fully expect Manchester to centre entirely on Patrick and Lee's blossoming relationship and how this surrogate dad and his surrogate son save each other. But it doesn't, it's a far more turbulent, far grittier film than that, in which easy solutions are as rare as rocking horse poop.

Get your bleak on: Manchester is a tough watch at times

Flashbacks are often a blunt instrument when it comes to cinematic storytelling. I can think of several recent films where the way in which they are utilised is beyond clumsy, as if Edward Scissorhands had had one too many crème de menthes and stumbled into the editing suite. No such concerns here; Lonergan grants the past and present equal heft and importance, and the flashbacks seamlessly and organically bleed into the main narrative, as Lee recollects memories both painful and joyous. And it is a flashback that provides the movie's crucial scene. The lengthy sequence in which we are shown what happened to upend our protagonist's life, and its terrible aftermath, is suitably agonising, the fact it's set to Albinoni's beautiful Adagio in G minor only making it all the more so. (A couple of critics, including The New Yorker's esteemed Anthony Lane, have suggested this piece of music is overused in cinema and, whilst I'm inclined to agree with him, it's hardly a deal breaker. Let's just say Lonergan makes rather better use of Adagio than The Inbetweeners 2 or Flashdance ever did.)

Astonishingly, the big set-piece isn't even Manchester By The Sea's most powerful moment. That comes later on when Lee bumps into Randy in the street and the two share a brief and utterly torturous conversation that is notable not only for what is said but for what is left unsaid. It is a tough watch as two people who have hurt each other dreadfully try and find the words to make it all right again. Of course, Lee is at a loss here too, this shambling shell of a man who died a long time ago but never got around to informing his body of the fact. You'd think that such an inert character would give Casey Affleck little to work with but he makes a feast from such unappetising scraps. The haunted look in his eyes, the sag of his shoulders, the palpable self-loathing he wears like a badge of dishonour tell you everything you need to know about what Lee feels and all that he has endured. It is a raw, deeply moving performance. Williams is only in the film for a short time but her presence looms large in virtually every scene. We see little of her own suffering but somehow imagining it is far worse.

Manchester is only Lonergan's third film as a director in 16 years and it is comfortably his best work. It has certain similarities with his debut, 2000's underrated You Can Count On Me, which saw a troubled Mark Ruffalo returning home to a small town to tap his older sister (Laura Linney) for money. He bonds with her son - his nephew - while the siblings grow closer than they have been in years. But, ultimately, he decides to move on. It's bitter sweet with rather more of the latter than you'll find here. At times, Lonergan's latest also reminded me of Pedro Almodovar's recent Julieta - that overwhelming pall of grief, of absence, is similar but even more discernible in this case. Both are about finding a way to carry on, even after life has thrown its absolute worst at you.

Home is where the hurt is: Patrick and Lee both battle demons

Although Manchester is a bleak film in many ways, Lonergan leavens its darkness with the odd scene of relatable humour and clumsily human interaction. There's a great bit in which Lee forgets where he's left his car and he and Patrick have to tromp through the snow-bound streets of Manchester looking for it, whilst shivering ever more violently in the cold; and an intense disagreement about Star Trek is hilariously incongruous in the immediate aftermath of Joe's death. Lee's complete refusal/inability to engage with people is even mined for laughs occasionally, including in an excruciating sequence when the mother of one of Patrick's girlfriends (he has two) tries to make small talk. Lee is like a rabbit frozen in headlights and Lonergan makes great play of contrasting that reaction with how utterly at ease Patrick is in the company of women.

Perhaps it's a bit overwrought, maybe Lonergan slathers on the symbolism a little heavy-handedly at times ("Oh look, it's bitingly cold, just like the aching void of grief at the centre of Lee's shattered heart"), but these are minor matters that in no way derail a film as visually beautiful as it is emotionally brutal. The notion that life itself is a force of nature just as untameable as the weather or the ocean is hardly original but it's one that is articulated with great humanity and considerable elegance by Lonergan. You can see how easy it would have been for it to become 'pity porn' but it never does - its characters, situations and refusal to do the easy, crowd-pleasing thing are far too convincingly 'real' for that.

Of course, there's a shadow that hangs over Manchester By The Sea or, more specifically, Affleck. He has been accused of various acts of sexual harassment and some have quite rightly questioned why he has been nominated for an Oscar. With the pussy-grabbing POTUS ensconced in the White House, I totally understand that seeing an alleged sexual predator picking up a Best Actor nom just adds insult to injury. The problem is, if you block Affleck, where do you stop with the exclusions? Hacksaw Ridge is up for six Oscars, including best director for Mel Gibson, the man who memorably proclaimed: "Fucking Jews... the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Now, he said those words and there's no allegedly about it. If we're ditching Affleck for something he might have done, surely we have to ditch Gibson for something - anti-Semitic hate speech - he definitely did. And if not, why not? Where's the line? Is there a statute of limitations on appalling behaviour? I've no idea and sure as hell wouldn't even know where to begin working it out. Until someone squares that circle (and good luck to them), it was right to nominate Affleck for his superlative work here, however distasteful many might find it.

Rating: WWWW

Manchester By The Sea is in cinemas now (UK), and released on DVD and Blu-ray on 21 February (USA)

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
- Watchable
- Woeful

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