Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

A stillness at the center

By Jonathan Price

Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother, is a superb film, the best I’ve seen all year and, in fact, in some time. And that’s as far as you should read here if you haven’t already seen (and want to see) it, because the rest of what you’ll find here will tell you a great many things about what happens and what’s key in the film.
    I’m really tired, as you might surmise, of film appreciations or reviews or previews that promise to withhold the key details that spoil your experience of the film; they always betray that promise to some degree. The better the film, the more any pre-disclosed detail spoils it. It’s like making love for the first time to someone you’re really excited about, only somebody hands you a guidebook as you enter the bedroom alerting you to key moments and what to look out for.
    So what’s so great about this film? Probably that it doesn’t neatly fit into some pre-established type or popular genre or demographic – it’s not about race, and it’s not about some dystopian future, and it’s not about a great historical event that we’re all familiar with but don’t know well, and it’s not for young lovers, and it doesn’t really have a happy ending that Woody Allen commented so many of his producers encouraged him to add to films to make them more profitable or salable; yet somehow Allen has continued to make films and profits. In other words, it’s about realistic people in a human place experiencing pain, suffering, loss, and a variety of emotions.
    It’s also understated, with the emotion most of the time repressed, hidden, beneath the surface, disguised.

    The film’s opening scene, like its title, is inviting and misleading, even bland. Why do they occasionally name films after places in an anodyne, anonymous way? Like Philadelphia? By contrast Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is at once a quasi-nursery rhyme, a conundrum, and a plot summary. Zero Dark Thirty is powerfully mysterious and military and is ultimately explained, briefly, in the dialog. 12 Years a Slave is simultaneously an eloquent plot summary and an indictment and a puzzle. Boyhood adroitly sums up a key era as well as a cinematic strategy. Perhaps Gallipoli is the intriguing exception, both a place name and a reference to a classic, tragic piece of early twentieth century history.
    In Manchester by the Sea we see a moment of witty and engaging horseplay on a fishing boat between Casey (Lee Chandler) and his perhaps eight-year-old nephew, Patrick, as Patrick’s father, Joe, the boat’s captain, jokes menacingly about throwing young boys to schools of sharks.
    We soon see Lee in a landlocked environment, Boston, shoveling snow outside a building, then discussing minor repairs with tenants in a variety of settings. He seems like the Lee of the opening sequence; he is thoughtful, accurate, helpful, but often noncommital. Perhaps a bit terse, reserved, not as human, playful, as engaged as he had been with his nephew. He appears pretty much the same Lee, well-built, handsome, definitely attractive. One female tenant goes to another room and talks audibly if not quite indiscreetly with a girlfriend about the crush she has on her handyman, wondering if it’s a hindrance that he’s doing plumbing maintenance on her shit-laden toilet. While he’s fixing a chandelier, an older woman kvetches on the phone about attending a grandchild’s bat mitzvah. A younger woman in a negligee, in another bathroom, argues with Lee about the source of leaked water, and eventually the conversation deteriorates to adjectival “fucking”s though no fucking is done.
    Again, Lee is shoveling more snow, same location, similar Sisyphean positioning, though the photography and the editing don’t overtly comment in this way at all. Later in a bar having a drink by himself next to two attractive woman, Lee has beer spilled on him, the spiller apologizes, a flirtatious moment to which he responds eventually only by throwing punches at the two suit-and-tied men across from him at the bar.
    Something is missing in Lee, something hidden, something subterranean. But we don’t know what; we don’t even recognize that his verbal offering is subdued. If we thought about it, we might wonder that a man who had seemed to enjoy children has no interactions with them, and that he is subtly avoiding deeper interactions with the opposite sex. In fact, pretty much with anybody. He lives in a sublevel single room through which two higher windows provide the only light.

Eventually a cellphone call summons Lee out of this subterranean hell into a lighter place, Manchester (Massachusetts), where his older brother Joe has just died of a heart attack and left Lee as the now 16-year-old Patrick’s guardian. The attack may seem sudden but we see a slowback (not a flashback) to a scene years earlier where Joe is diagnosed with “congestive heart failure” and given a prognosis of perhaps ten years; the three men in the room (Joe, Lee, and their father) joke a bit, but Joe’s wife walks out abruptly, leaving him there. What seems sudden is never sudden; catastrophe always has its Cassandras.
    The slowbacks are clues, keys to the subterranean life. Interspersed with this Manchester narrative – the present of Joe’s death and its aftermath, mostly shots of the harbor, ships slowly moving, or gulls hovering above, stately houses seen on a headland – are shots of Lee’s backstory with his family. Actually, the gulls and boats are pretty much all that are seen moving – despite its village setting and the life of the sea, virtually no human beings are distinguishable in Manchester. Manchester is bucolic, idyllic, a series of set landscapes and seascapes that are, simply, beautiful. At variance with this setting is the human life we learn about in the other scenes – painful, tragic, barely utterable.
    As Lee and Patrick go through the rounds of uncle-nephew duties following Joe’s death – they visit mortuary, lawyer, ultimately the funeral service – we gradually learn more of both their backgrounds;. And in between we see their interaction at Patrick’s home as Lee temporarily plays the role of parent, approving sleepovers by Patrick’s girlfriend, giving him money for food, maintaining his stance that he won’t move from Boston. Again, something is unvisited, unsaid. Lee’s conversation is not catatonic, but it is not thoroughly warm or jovial, and his responses are full of polite refusals, declines of invitations to dinner or socialization. In one scene Patrick tries to convince his uncle to come into his girlfriend’s house because her mother is interested in Lee; he is resistant, but eventually acquiesces. The conversation between Lee and the mother is so barren and underresponsive that she eventually flees to her daughter’s bedroom and pleas for rescue, comically interrupting the younger generation’s attempts at sexual satisfaction.
    But Lee had a wife; she is mentioned as one person to notify of Joe’s death. We see her in one sequence where he comes home and plays with their children and climbs onto her in bed, as she resists because she has a cold. Why is he now so clueless with women?

The film’s climactic scene is an unspoken sequence accompanied by a beautiful classical piece by Albinoni, set in flashbacks against Lee’s visits to lawyer, priest. The scene begins with a mildly drunken ping pong party of Lee and male friends, the only time in the film we see him congenial and happy among a group of peers. It is 2 a.m., and his wife interrupts. In the breakup of the party, Lee trudges across snowridden shortcuts to a convenience store, trudges home to encounter his house on fire and his wife being taken to an ambulance on a stretcher. Three small black bags emerge eventually from the smoking ruin. They echo, in mute and mysterious silence, the three framed objects Lee removes from his subterranean Boston basement and resets on his bureau in his temporary Manchester residence. We never see the photos in the frames. We never see the bodies of the children. We don’t need to.
    A related scene, a powerful emotional climax underplayed for what is not shown, not said, is a late encounter on the streets of Manchester between Lee and his ex-wife Randi. It is accidental, it is unexpected, it is heartbreaking, and I cried both times I saw it. Again, it is a case of a woman making an overture to Lee, a request simply to have lunch together, which he rejects, with polite avoidance. Randi is all forgiveness, apologies, and love for the unspoken tragedy between them.
    The pain is real, but so much is not shown. Lee’s is not, of course, the only suffering in the film. His nephew has also experienced painful loss: his mother, mysteriously unavailable for some time, was an alcoholic, and banned from the family. When she welcomes her son to her new home and new husband for a meal, there is more distance and tension under the surface. Lee understands his nephew’s pain, his disinterest in living again with his mother. However, Lee himself admits he cannot see a way back. This vague line encompasses so much of what he has repressed, of his own loss and guilt, of his inability to move forward usefully; he can have an interlude back in Manchester, the scene of his early boyhood and young fatherhood and ultimate catastrophe, but he cannot stay. It is so painful that Lee returns to Boston, to another janitorial job.
    But this time the room he rents will have a space for Patrick: Lee experiences great pain because he cares. Patrick’s suffering is disguised and allayed by the surface pleasures of late adolescence: school, friends, a band of which he is a leader, his hoped-for future as owner of his father’s fishing boat. But Patrick does break down, once from the strain, suffering a panic attack when deluged by frozen chicken from the refrigerator, reminding him of his father lingering in a freezer awaiting a spring burial in more accessible ground. Lee’s response on the occasion of the panic attack shows the love and parenting skills he retains, offering Patrick an ear, refusing to leave his bedroom until he is satisfied the young man is okay. When uncle and nephew later visit an ominous gun rack in the family house, and Patrick asks whether the guns are for Lee to kill himself or to shoot Patrick, Lee explains that they can be sold to buy Patrick a new motor for his boat. Remembered angst and suffering are always available, but renewed tragedy can be avoided.
    The movie lingers on its final scene, Lee and Patrick fishing off the back of the boat Patrick has now inherited, an echo of the film’s opening sequence, a kind of closure without renewal or resurrection. The end credits linger over the stillness of Manchester’s elegiac exteriors; the only moving or animated objects are seagulls and a lone duck.

Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Price

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