dir: Kenneth Lonergan
Well, that was exhausting. Manchester by the Sea is a long arse movie, but even its length doesn’t matter as much as its content. And what miserable content it is.
Casey Affleck, the shorter Affleck, the younger Affleck, won an Academy Award for this role. I’m not going to argue that it is ill-deserved, or should have gone to anyone else, because that’s pointless. It doesn’t matter anyway. But to get this most “highest” of honours for this role seems…surprising.
I think it’s surprising because the character is so much like the walking dead from that show whose title escapes me at the moment, except he doesn’t want fresh brains or anything else to eat. He, being Lee, is dead inside. He goes through the motions of his work, which requires talking to people, but he hates talking to people. It seems to cause him physical discomfort.
This isn’t the latest in a long line of autism-spectrum dramas trying to illuminate aspects of the human experience through portraying the way some people are completely anti-social but good at math or shooting people or something like that. Lee’s not on the spectrum, he’s just dead inside from grief.
It takes a while to find out what happened, but the more pressing factor, at least from Lee’s perspective, is that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has just died, which forces Lee to drive to a place, the place of the title, that he can’t stand to be in.
The various locales in the movie are all in Massachusetts, but they manage to go easy on ‘those’ accents that Matt Damon, the Afflecks, the Wahlbergs, Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby and, to a lesser extent, the Kennedys, made famous. Thankfully, though Michelle Williams makes a (lousy) go of it at some points, so there isn’t a lot of “So I pahked my cah in the garahge” type bullshit. Lee is too depressed to put on an accent anyway.
In the scope of dealing with his brother’s death, and trying to figure out what to do about his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), we are dealt elements of Lee’s family’s backstory in bite-sized chunks, in order to only gradually see that the post-apocalyptic landscape that is Lee’s life, and his brother’s death foretold, are all pieces of an awful jigsaw puzzle that will make ample sense soon enough.
It’s the hour mark where I thought the film had done something lazy that was at odds with how we’d gotten here thus far. Director Kenneth Lonergan is known for trusting his actors, and getting them to deliver what are referred to as ‘naturalistic’ performances (which are anything but, since there’s so much bloody acting on display), but he’s not above goosing a scene to give it some extra melodrama.
The Adagio in G Minor. You might not know what it’s called, or who composed it, but you recognise it when you hear it. It’s one of the most mournful and clichéd songs ever used in any film or tv program. Along with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Dido’s Lament, or Goreczki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it is a piece of music designed to mourn the dead and to make the living wish they were dead. It is so funereal that it is surreal.
And it’s played here, in a key section, in a way that I thought was too much. The piece is a long one, though, and I forgot that. So, as I’m watching this section, which is admittedly sad, I’m thinking “Nup, Lonergan, you didn’t trust the scene, you just had to overdo it out of fear that it wouldn't get across”.
It’s a long piece that just keeps on depressing, but by the last section of that sequence, I felt somewhat chastised, when we see what happens to Lee when the enormity of the ‘event’, and his role in it, overwhelms him completely, after he’s given an account of what he thinks happened on a particular night to the police.
What happened to Lee, or more importantly, his three kids, may or may not have been his fault, but there is no coming back from something like that. Contemporary movies have no problem using the death of a child as backstory for any character to give them more depth, as if it’s some kind of requisite accessory (I very unfairly refer to this trend as a character suffering from Deadkiditis), but there’s no brushing off, or moving past, or redeeming oneself, or finding some other kid to be a substitute, there’s none of that for Lee, and, staying true to the misery the character continues to live in, there will never be any respite for him.
It’s a bit of a tall order to ask an audience to accept something like that, but if it’s more ‘honest’, then maybe it’s more ‘true’. Lee starts the film alone, miserable and depressed, and he ends the flick pretty much in the same place, but there is at least a hint, a modicum of a glimmer of a sliver of some hope that Lee will retain some connection to living breathing people through his nephew, but I wouldn’t put too much money on it if I were a betting man, and I’m not.
Manchester-by-the-Sea itself seems like a beautiful New England town on the water, and I’m sure most of the people in the town are decent people, but Lee is a pariah amongst them. He desperately doesn’t want to be there, and many of the people he interacts with shudder in horror or recoil when they see him.
One particular woman, upon hearing his voice when he comes in to her place of business to beg her husband for a job, intones with venom to her husband upon Lee’s getaway: “I don’t want to see that man in here EVER AGAIN.” You can practically hear the all caps when she says it.
The town itself does nothing but remind him of what he’s lost, and there’s always the horrifying prospect that someone will try to talk to him. Conversations – ewww. One inspired sequence, which has to do more so with two horny teenagers trying to have sex, has the excitable kids get interrupted for the last time by a mother begging her daughter for Lee to go away, because trying to engage him in conversation is too pointless and too painful an exercise.
My other favourite moment in the flick is where Lee is yelling at Patrick as they stand outside in the cold after Lee heard something he didn’t want to hear from his dearly departed brother’s lawyer. As he and Pat yell at each other, a man walking past (who happens to be the director) says sarcastically “Real great parenting”, which of course results in Lee, who likes getting into fights with strangers, yelling abuse at the stranger.
Is he a ‘good’ character, at least in terms of someone we want to spend two hours and twenty minutes with? Well, to those that can stomach this kind of character study, I guess it is fascinating watching the layers of his greatly diminished personality being peeled back in order to reveal the greater misery beneath. I am not bored by films like this, on the contrary, I generally love them. By the same token, while I sympathise with his plight greatly, perhaps more as a parent than as a ‘stoic, emotionally repressed, New Englander” man, there are times when I felt horribly frustrated by him. I’m unsure if he was a ‘good’ man beforehand, but I’m pretty sure, to use the technical term, he’s a fucking arsehole now. The pushing away of people, the deliberate and stubborn insistence on boring people into leaving him alone, the overwhelming grief, the inability to let go of the past, all of that I can understand and relate to. The impact of severe, monstrous depression; well, that I can’t personally relate to, but I have seen it up close and personal, and it is devastatingly familiar.
The getting drunk and picking fights with strangers bit I don’t get as much, because that element seems to be more a bullshit model of toxic masculinity, at a time where we seem to be drowning in portrayals of toxic masculinity. Maybe it cuts too close to the bone, who knows. I am not sure we are meant to feel sorry for Lee by the end of it, but at the very least we could see that his efforts to shield his nephew from his worst qualities is probably to the kid’s ultimate benefit. Even as we’re meant to be disappointed at Lee’s further retreat from the world; maybe the emotionally mature thing to accept is that we can’t change frustrating characters in movies any more than we can do the same in our own lives with those who problems aren’t resolvable with inspiring speeches or the love of a good woman / man / hamburger.
If there are elements that don’t completely work (oh and there are, especially all the stuff to do with Patrick’s mum (Gretchen Mol), and having to listen to Patrick’s terrible band too many times), they pale into the mix over the course of the movie, because there’s plenty of movie there to make up for the shortfalls. I particularly liked family friend George (C.J. Wilson), and the way, other than being the salt-of-the-earth type that the others only pretended to be, he greets everything that happens or is said to him with wide-eyed surprise. He seems shocked that he's in the movie, and that's great. My favourite of his lines is when Lee is first trying to convince him to maybe adopt Patrick, and good Catholic family man George, looking somewhat stunned, says something along the lines of "at this point we're really trying to lose some kids instead."
Love you, George, don't go changing.
Patrick is a believable teenager, in that he's smart, and he's a smartarse, but as much as he wishes he had someone to depend on in Lee, what he seems more to want is no disruption to his current life or friendships. He is not overwhelmed by grief at his father's death.
And, despite looking like a real live red-headed version of Milhouse Van Houten, he is somehow something of a ladies man, trying and mostly succeeding to get laid six ways from Sunday. His various obstacles to getting what he wants are mostly played to humorous effect, especially when that obstacle (his paramour's mother) has to be distracted by Lee when Lee has lost the capacity to hold a conversation where he's not yelling at someone.
Miserablism by the Sea was correctly lauded as one of the better movies of last year, and, as much as I enjoyed it, or 'enjoyed' it, damn, it was not easy to get there. There's a bigger story to consider about why films about men suffering are having such a moment lately, but that's another review for another day.
Manchester-by-the-Sea. Visit for the seafood. Leave before you become a pariah.
8 levels upon which grief slays the survivors out of 10
"Uncle Lee, are you fundamentally unsound?" - many have asked, and the question practically answers itself - Manchester by the Sea