Sunday, January 1, 2017

Brief thoughts on Manchester by the Sea.

We as humans are subject to a wide variety of feelings both pleasant and unpleasant. In fact, many of these emotions are triggered not by any actions of our own, but by a shared connection formed with other people. Sometimes these bonds can be so strong, and our love of these people can be so powerful, that the thought we may someday lose them can be unbearable. Such grief can cause unpleasant and unstable thoughts beyond our control, all of which that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea examines in as painful, but deeply emotional context as possible.

Choosing to forego any sense of traditional structure or pace, Manchester by the Sea largely takes place in a stream of consciousness fashion, taking us through the mundane episodic events surrounding Casey Affleck's Lee, as he settles the affairs and tasks left to him by his late brother. Yet as mundane and as meaningless as such actions may appear on the surface, the natural flow of the film is quite fascinating in capturing the effects of grief, in that it's a very messy and painful feeling to go through, and the overall picture of the film takes the shape of what an actual grieving person may remember the experience being, almost like a snapshot collection of moments pieced together. It's also true to the constant distractions that plague us, including the numerous pacifications we seek out to let our minds run blank if only for a moment, whether they be immersing ourselves in our work, cheesy small talk, TV screens and sports, sex, and other various hobbies.

The fact that the film feels fractured in this regard is certainly no accident, and this loosely told story allows a great deal of breathing room in order to better define characters. Leading the pack is Casey Affleck in a terrific turn as Lee, a man more than home keeping to himself working a small-paying job as janitor and technician, but who is hopelessly lost simply holding a conversation with anyone that he comes across. Affleck's performance is very internal and nuanced, appearing on the outside to be perfectly normal to anyone who sees him, if quite antisocial and standoffish, but behind the ever changing texture of his minuscule expressions and eye movements, hides a deeper dug in pain like a ticking time bomb ready to burst. Without giving crucial details better left experiencing cold, his life is built on a past of great mistakes that have driven him to isolation, so afraid to leave that comfort zone and repeat those sins that he chooses not to allow others to get close to him. Such choices may have threatened to make the character inaccessible or unsympathetic, but Affleck still retains a strong heartbeat under that detached exterior, even making him easily empathizable at nearly every turn he makes.

That aforementioned isolation further ties back to my earlier points about connection with others, in that his choices not only begin to hinder his own will, but cause a similarly hurt effect on those closest to him. A number of figures soon take to revisiting Lee, one of the most prominent being his ex-wife Randi, played by a sparingly used but superb Michelle Williams,  who largely serves her purpose within the flashback sequences, coming to Lee as relevant events in the present trigger that once blank memory of his. In spite of the warmth that the scenes are built upon, they're also tinged with a powerful and hidden level of pain and remorse, especially in those areas Lee feels to have failed Randi, and despite the latter's desires to reconnect in the years since (with Williams knocking it out of the park in one of the film's standout scenes), she still proves too powerful a beacon and symbol of those long-repressed memories that he would still rather not confront.

In addition, Lee is currently the legal guardian of his brother's son Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, an angsty teenager appearing to be similarly detached, seemingly unaffected by his father's passing as he goes through his hockey practice, band rehearsals, and engages in frequent casual sex with two different girls. But that carefree facade can only hold up for so long, often letting itself out in great, theatrical, sometimes even violent fashion, and it proves especially complicated when eventually, Patrick seems more of the mature moderating presence in comparison to the closed off Lee, while also finding some humor in the newly built relationship. Speaking of which, that's another fine quality to the film's credit, in that while the film may be a downer and intentionally built to be unsatisfying in nature (wisely pulling no punches or giving in to cheap emotional concessions), Lonergan is also aware that there is a great deal of humor and hilarity to be mined from those depressive feelings, including awkward silences as we struggle to put words together to say, and ill-thought out comments unintentionally belittling someone's grief.

Still, as fascinating as the messiness of the film can be, even then Lonergan still goes a bit far at times, with some off-putting directorial and editing choices rearing their heads on occasion, and even small cameos slightly taking the viewer out of the movie. Still, such complaints are minor to what is otherwise a fantastic and naturally built experience of the forms that grief takes. So if you haven't already, be sure to see it for yourself.

****1/2 / *****

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