Thursday, December 22, 2016

In Theaters: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Cast; Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Tom Kemp, Kenneth Lonergan. (R, 137 mins)

Acclaimed writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's pay-the-bills gigs have included scripting films like ANALYZE THIS and GANGS OF NEW YORK, but he's best known for his 2000 indie YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, which got Laura Linney an Oscar nomination and was the first big break for Mark Ruffalo. But then it all fell apart as Lonergan's follow-up, MARGARET, was shot in 2005 and languished on the shelf for six years, mired in editing issues and lawsuits. It finally got released on just 14 screens in 2011, and that was only after Lonergan mentor Martin Scorsese intervened and supervised an exactly 150-minute recut that met the distributor's demand of a 150-minute film that Lonergan refused to deliver. Lonergan was allowed to prepare his own 186-minute director's cut for the Blu-ray and while the film met with significant acclaim, he was subsequently viewed as everything from difficult at best to unstable at worst, and for a while, it appeared as though his career might be finished. Five years after the MARGARET debacle came to an end, and with the help of producer pal Matt Damon, Lonergan is back with MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, a distinctly Lonergan character piece that takes the complex family dynamics of YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and the gut-wrenching emotional trauma of MARGARET to make what's probably his defining auteur statement yet.

Turning in the sort of internalized, anguished performance whose power might not hit you right away, Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, an apartment janitor and handyman in Quincy, just outside of Boston. He keeps to himself, drinks too much, isn't pleasant with tenants, and looks for fights at the neighborhood bar. He's going about his routine when he gets a call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who lives 90 minutes away in Manchester, has been hospitalized. Joe dies before Lee can get to the hospital, his heart finally just giving out after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure at an unusually young age a few years earlier. There's the usual affairs to get in order--Joe's business, his boat, and the burial, which can't take place until spring because it's the dead of winter and the ground is too frozen, forcing Joe's body to be kept in a hospital freezer until the ground begins to thaw--but Lee's primary concern is Joe's 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Joe explicitly stated in his will that Lee is to become Patrick's guardian, a decision never discussed with Lee, who was under the impression that their uncle would raise Patrick if anything happened to Joe, but Joe changed the will when that uncle moved to Minnesota. With Patrick's mother, Joe's alcoholic ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), out of the picture, Lee tries to get Joe's best friend George (C.J. Wilson) to take Patrick, but decides that he'll just have to move back to Quincy with him. This upsets Patrick, who has friends, two girlfriends, school, and sports in Manchester, along with his being the lead guitarist in a not-very-good band. The situation is forcing the closed-off Lee to take charge and confront actual feelings again, several years after his life fell apart in a tragic incident that was too much for his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) to handle.

Lonergan reveals Lee's past in bits and pieces, flashing back to various incidents from Patrick's childhood, the early stages of Joe's diagnosis, and scenes depicting Lee's happily married life with Randi. What happened to Lee and Randi is operatically tragic, a bit of drunken absent-mindedness that changed the Chandler family's lives forever, and one that still causes the Manchester townies to speak of Lee in hushed tones when he returns for Joe's funeral, some old friends offering condolences, others wanting nothing to do with him. This incident is revealed in a long flashback that's almost too difficult to watch, but Lonergan belabors the point a little by blaring Albinioni's Adagio in G Minor so loud and so long that it actually starts to undermine the effectiveness. It's really the only misstep in an otherwise exemplary and profoundly, achingly moving film, anchored by powerful performances from Affleck and Hedges, as well as Williams, who only has a few scenes but makes every one count. Lonergan dives right into the action, but then lets things play out in natural, unaffected ways, allowing us to get to know everything we need to know about these characters, even the minor ones like Elise's second husband, played in a one-scene cameo by Lonergan regular Matthew Broderick. Affleck and Hedges beautifully portray the back-and-forth love and resentment between a broken man who just wants to be left alone and the nephew who used to look up to him and wants to be independent but needs his uncle more than he realizes. It's a raw and unflinching film but it's sprinkled with some surprisingly funny moments, whether it's Lee trying to grasp how Patrick can juggle two girlfriends or how the uncle and nephew find dark humor in a period of intense mourning (Patrick, inside Lee's freezing cold car: "Maybe we can just put my dad back here." Lee: "Shut the fuck up"). MARGARET was an ambitious but sometimes unwieldy mess that got away from him, but Lonergan has crafted his finest work yet with MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, one of 2016's best films.

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