‘I’ ON CULTURE
In an era of blockbusters and special effects, great drama can often be overlooked. But Manchester by the Sea is so good, so strong and affecting, that it is a must-see for this year. It is not one of the cute TV-similar uplifting movies where everything works out, but a great reflection of how life often is. Things happen, but you go on.
Modern people are not as adept at tragedy as the ancients. Medea features a bitter mother who kills her children. In Antigone, a young woman is condemned to die unfairly, and the man who loves her, the son of the man who condemned her, dies along with her. Audiences today do not want to see people ruined, unless they are villains. They want a promise of a better tomorrow.
In real life, however, that better tomorrow doesn’t always come. Grief is not a thing that can always be overcome. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has trouble directly acting after discovering what he thinks is evidence of his father’s murder, and most of the cast winds up dead by the end. Life can be like that, even if most popular entertainment works to conceal the truth.
This film’s hero, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), is a janitor in Quincy, just south of Boston. He is an isolate; no friends and a predilection for trouble. Then he receives a message from a family friend, George (C.J. Wilson), that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a major heart attack. Lee rushes to see him, but he dies before Lee can arrive. He goes to Manchester by the Sea, another suburb, to tell Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
While making arrangements for the funeral, both he and his nephew discover that he has been named guardian, creating a problem. Lee grew up in that town and faced massive tragedy there when a fire he accidently caused went out of control and killed his children. Just being there brings back horrible memories of his ruined life.
Forced by extreme weather to wait for the funeral, he is forced to deal with Patrick and his issues while also being forced to reexamine his own early tragedy. Things do not go well. Lee cannot live there, and Patrick hates giving up things he has grown up with, feeling increased separation from his father’s life.
There were arguments over Patrick’s girlfriend (Anna Baryshnikov), particularly about attempts to set Lee up with her mother. Complicating things further, Patrick resumes contact with his mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), a former alcoholic now engaged to an evangelical Christian. The boy hopes to live with her, but her fiancé limits contact.
We can only hope that things will somehow work out, but this is real life. Things get better, but a “happy ending” is not really in the cards.
Casey Affleck is superb as the central character. In many dramas, we would trace his growth. But Lee is no longer really able to change. He is not able to have a real emotional impact; he has become an emotional black hole. We see explanations for his lack of ability to connect with others, but as each one gets stripped away, there is another layer underneath.
Michelle Williams comes in for an extended scene playing his ex-wife. Her anger at their joint tragedy is now ended, and she might like a return to normalcy, but he is no longer capable of such things. That scene alone should earn both of them Academy Award nominations. It is tough, brilliant and incredibly wearing.
Affleck, often in the shadow of his brother Ben, will be long remembered for his work here.
Everyone in the film is really good in their roles. Young Hedges is great in a tough role; he has to show his shock and mourning for his father, his hopes for reconciliation with his mother, as well as his desire to return to normalcy.
I have always liked Gretchen Mol, and watching her try to restore her relationship with her son while dealing with the hostility of her fiancé could constitute a class in acting.
Kenneth Lonergan, the writer/director, has furnished a brilliant tragedy, one that is deeply affecting and without the normally accepted happy ending. It is considered one of the favorites in the Oscar race. See it.