Manchester by the Sea – review from Lee Adams
It was a bitter February afternoon when we laid my great grandmother to rest with her husband who’d died over fifty years earlier. She never remarried or even looked at another man as far as we knew, so we took comfort in the romantic notion that she was finally reunited with the love of her life on Valentine’s Day.
As her coffin was lowered into the ground, one of guys doing the lowering lost his footing. For a terrible, eternal moment he tap danced around on the edge of the grave, spinning his arms, trying desperately not to fall in. I remember closing my eyes, thinking: If you go in I’m going to grab that shovel, dive in after you and smash your stupid skull open. Finally he managed to recover his balance enough to fall back on the pile of earth instead, disaster averted. Over the years we’ve come to look back on that moment with fondness, a case in point for the old saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy.
I relate this incident because I was reminded of it again while watching Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s harrowing yet poignant family drama. Directing his own screenplay, he’s wise enough to realise two things – first, that the absurdity of life doesn’t go on hold during tragic times; indeed, it seems to take inspiration and crank up its output. Secondly, that no matter how bad things get, we tend to fall back on humour as a survival mechanism. It’s this grace note, weaving humour and farce into an otherwise sombre tale, that separates it from outright misery-fests like 21 Grams.
It is the story of a broken man. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a solitary, self-flagellating existence as a janitor, and may be one of the most doomed characters in modern mainstream cinema. He left his titular hometown several years earlier after an unspeakable tragedy that was his fault, and is so incapacitated by grief that he can barely function. He drinks too much, has anger management issues and allows himself no pleasurable human interaction – when an attractive woman throws herself at him in a bar, he shrugs her off and focuses on a couple of guys he’d rather pick a fight with instead.
Lee is summoned home when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly drops dead from a heart attack. He’s got arrangements to make for his brother’s burial, and to his annoyance and astonishment, discovers that Joe has named him legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Given his culpability in the earlier tragedy and his fragile emotional state, Lee feels that maybe he isn’t the right person for the job.
The Chandler clan are a surly blue collar bunch, their affection for one another disguised by lots of shouting and harsh banter. Lee must fill in as father figure for Patrick while trying to figure out what’s best for him, while negotiating the ghosts of his past that inevitably come rattling on his bedstead. Chief among them is his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who has moved on and remarried during his absence.
You might guess from this plot summary that Manchester by the Sea is not exactly a laugh riot. You’re absolutely right, but then it is shot through with moments of farce and comedy. After a visit to the funeral parlour, Lee forgets where he’s parked the car, resulting in him and Patrick pacing the streets in the freezing cold, arguing and looking for it. Like my example earlier, it’s one of those moments that years later they’ll look back on with a wry smile and say: “Remember that time when we were checking out coffins for Uncle Joe and we forgot where we’d left the car?”
It’s a small detail, but acknowledging that relationship between tragedy and comedy is something that makes Manchester by the Sea so truthful. People have always been fascinated by that balance, and it’s a tricky thing to get right. My pet hate is when screenwriters ignore it altogether, seemingly afraid to include humour in tragic stories and making their characters so unrelentingly – and unrealistically – humourless. Lonergan is even brave enough to treat a character, during their highest distress, with a moment of slapstick humiliation that could’ve come straight out of a Naked Gun movie.
Casey Affleck’s performance is pitched at such a low frequency that I couldn’t tune in, and it was only when he verbalised his emotions towards the end that it finally clicked for me. Only in hindsight, revisiting scenes in my mind, did I appreciate how well controlled and mature his performance is here. But then I also had difficulty with his other Oscar nominated role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so I think he’s just one of those actors I have a blind spot for.
For all the great work Lonergan does, he makes a few poor decisions. Lesley Barber’s music tends to overscore the action to such a degree that I initially thought that the soundtrack for another film was playing simultaneously by mistake. At times it almost completely drowns out the dialogue, and gives some scenes an unwanted melodramatic tint. Matthew Broderick pops up in a late cameo that can only be described as stunt casting, sapping an important scene of all its dramatic impact – all I could think was, “Isn’t Ferris Bueller looking old these days?”
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Manchester by the Sea is that it’s confident enough to be harrowing and honest, without making a late grab for catharsis that lesser films often reach for in the last act. It is grown up enough to say: No, things might not necessarily be OK in the end, but life will somehow go on. That’s not necessarily an original viewpoint, but combined with Lonergan’s earthy sense of gallows humour and acute sense of family dynamics, feels sincere and reassuring. See it, then buy yourself a balloon afterwards to cheer yourself up.