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Manchester by the Sea

"Aw, fuck this." A succinct expression from the aggrieved Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) that serves to as both a venting of  momentary exasperation and a more lingering, existential state of the man address.  The frustration at hand is bad enough, attending to the dire errands that follow the death of his beloved brother in a Manchester-by-the-Sea hospital, which occurred while he was on the road from Quincy.  But we already have a sense by this time that Lee Chandler's despondency and occasional flares of rage have a greater source than his brother's demise.  There's a kind of iceberg of grief dominating this man's consciousness, the dimension and impossible edges of which writer and director Kenneth Lonergan will make us powerfully aware as Manchester by the Sea proceeds.    

Manchester by the Sea is getting its share of attention as the generally-dubious reflection continues on the best films of 2016, not to mention a nod or two from that slow-moving old cyclops, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  There seems, at least, a consensus that this a serious, affecting, well-made piece of cinema.  True enough.  But Manchester by the Sea is arguably great, and deceptively so.

In Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan utilizes what is a common enough story structure, wherein the person who has withdrawn from life is drawn back in, knocked back into human orbit by some unexpected collision of character, circumstance, or both.  Lonergan both operates masterfully within the familiar framework and then casts aside the pat ending, that most familiar and beloved extension of the creaky framework to American audiences.  This leaves his main character standing stage left at story's end, a bit like Jacques in As You Like It, unwilling to participate in the  marriage ritual that so define the comedies.  But Jacques was merely melancholy.  Regarding the life about him, Lee Chandler  will take a much deeper and shadowy place in the wings.

Whatever has occurred in Lee Chandler's past, it's evident that his reputation has preceded him to Manchester.  After the grim business of identifying the body of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee has to find his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Before he can do so, the second of Manchester by the Sea's series of flashbacks occur.  The past tends to creep at Kenneth Lonergan's characters like a rip current.  On this occasion, the sweep of memory is insidiously happy, as we see good times aboard the Claudia Marie, Joe Chandler's fishing boat.  The older brother steers the craft, looks back bemusedly and occasionally interposes himself in the horseplay between Lee and the eight-year-old Patrick.

As Lee tries to track down his nephew, he speaks first to the boy's assistant principal, who tells him that Patrick is with his hockey team in Gloucester.  After the brief and slightly fitful conversation ends, the assistant principal speaks to his assistant:

"Who was that on the phone?"

"That was Lee Chandler."

"Lee Chandler?"

"The very one."

Lee's presence elicits a similar response from Patrick's hockey coach, with more spoken italics:  That's Lee Chandler?  The Lee Chandler?  The reaction is much more severe when Lee later inquires about a job at the Manchester boatyard office.  After an awkward, if amiable conversation with a man Lee clearly knows, he leaves.  After he exits the office, the woman who had sat at a nearby desk listening to the conversation, presumably the man's boss, emerges and says, "I don't wanna see him in here again."  

We don't know what provokes this chorus wariness and disapproval.  As we see Lee Chandler through the early scenes of Manchester by the Sea, he works as a custodian, doing vital and shit work alike at a Quincy apartment building.  He responds to the lust and scorn of two female tenants with similar indifference.  A woman who spills a beer on him for the sake of striking up a conversation in a bar gets no further.  Only that same bar night, when the hinges of his anger have been adequately lubricated, do we see Lee take an interest in his fellow man.  This a fistfight with two business types, who have made the mistake of sitting opposite the sullen man.  Otherwise, there are just the lonely tasks of this solitary man, for whom repeated rounds of snow shoveling take on a Sisyphusian prospect.  

There are women suffering in Manchester by the Sea, specifically the ex-wives of both of the Chandler brothers.  But most of the film's time is devoted to the relationship of Lee Chandler and his nephew - generally gruff, but with its oblique moments of tenderness.  The young man and the not-so-old man, each with his grief.  Men both, neither adept at expressing emotions, neither able to escape what plagues them, much as the uncle faces the far more daunting prospect.

As for Patrick Chandler, there is no obvious and immediate breakdown.  We first see him, after a little action, involved in  a fight on the rink.  This, perhaps, an indication of a troubled teenager who's going to act out far more dramatically once his uncle shares the terrible news.  But neither Kenneth Lonergan's writing nor the emotions of young men necessarily veer toward obvious expression.  Though clearly affected, Patrick doesn't break down.  After some indecision - "What does he look like?" he responds when Lee asks him if he wants to see his father - Patrick makes his visit to the hospital morgue.  It's a brief visit:  barely in the door, he casts glance in the direction of his father's corpse and says, "Okay, thank you."

At the hockey rink, Lonergan's story and direction had provided an even more telegraphic and touching demonstration of young men and their emotions. When it's obvious that he's received bad news about this father, two of Patrick's friends skate over to console him. You'll rarely see a better metaphor of halting tenderness than when the goalie, still in full pads, offers his friend an awkward hug.

As feelings are shared, or not shared, as the case may be in Manchester by the Sea, there is also the matter of regional if not cultural difference when it comes to such matters. Here, the sometimes brusque, amusingly bellicose nature of conversation between Northeasterners. At the reception following Joe Chandler's funeral, Lee is hawked by family friend, George (C.J. Wilson):

"...You get some food?"

"I had some cheese." 

"You had some cheese.  Asshole."  

"I'll get you something.  Hey JANINE!" (this from George to his wife)

"Seriously, I'm not hungry."  

"Never mind!  Skip it!  I said forget it!"  (George to Janine)


So goes the polite, post-burial discourse at this Massachusetts gathering.  There is also the more terse, understated form of this verbal sparring, as when Patrick inquires after his uncle's bandaged hand.  

"What happened to your hand?"

"I cut it." 

"Oh.  For a minute there I didn't know what happened."     

Kenneth Lonergan has a writer's eye for detail, especially those that glare in contradiction.  This applies to those slightly incongruous shouts across a funeral reception, as well as the eddies of absurdity amid the flows of utmost gravity.  After identifying his brother's body, Lee's departure is delayed while hospital staff look for the plastic bag containing Joe Chandler's belongings.  Right along the margins of "Manchester's" central tragedy, there is the faltering attempts of EMS workers, repeatedly banging the florescent yellow legs of a stretcher against the back of an ambulance, so they can get an overcome Randi Chandler into the vehicle.  So it goes, these seemingly cruel juxtapositions, as the brilliant blue sky that presides over that tragedy's morning after. 

There's nothing flashy, nothing of the auteur about Mr. Lonergan's direction.  There is instead a quiet sense of authority.  Even what seem to be rote establishing shots, as with the several looks we get of Manchester from the vantage point of the sea are given a power they don't usually bear because of their context.  As with the story's structure, Lonergan directs with the precision of a craftsman, investing long-established forms with unusual strength and insight.                 

Lee and Patrick Chandler enjoy a hard-earned bit of respite in Manchester by the Sea. After much argument about where Lee (made Patrick's guardian by his brother's will) and his nephew might reside, as well as the fate of the Claudia Maria, which Patrick hopes to keep despite the financial realities of the craft's maintenance, there is a relatively carefree cruise out on the cold waters.  On this occasion it is Lee Chandler observing Patrick, crowding the wheel with one of his girlfriends.  This while a few bars, a few warm rays of sun are felt from the Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald's version of "I'm Beginning to See the Light."  

For Lee Chandler, the going is mainly rough in Manchester by the Sea.  As if the man didn't have enough to face, the writer and director appears in the flesh to taunt him.  Making a cameo as "Manchester pedestrian," Lonergan happens upon Lee and Patrick in the middle of one of many arguments:

"Patty, I swear to God I'm gonna knock your fuckin' block off!"

"Great parenting."   

"Mind your own fuckin' business!"

Patrick Chandler seems to possess a good measure of the emotional resiliency of youth.  For Lee, there seems less hope.  This he tries to explain to his ex-wife, Randi, during another chance encounter about Manchester.  As she tries to apologize for harsh things she said during that darkest time in their life, as she expresses her love for Lee and her desire to have some semblance of a relationship, he can only offer the verbal equivalent of backing sadly away:  "It's not that...I can't...I'm happy for you and I want...But - there's nothin' there....You don't understand."  He manages to state the case with more clarity and finality to his nephew when he explains the arrangements for Patrick to stay in Manchester and be adopted by George:

"I know.  I mean, they're great....But why can't you stay"  (Patrick)

" Come on, Patty...I can’t beat it.  I can’t beat it. I’m sorry."

By the time the difficult conversations between Lee, his ex-wife and nephew take place, we've long been aware of the scope, the depth of his pain, just what it was that left him the man he is.  This Kenneth Lonergan illustrates by a series of flashbacks while Lee is at the lawyer's office, where he's trying to come to terms with the news that he's been made his nephew's guardian and is expected to relocate to Manchester. 
There is first a party scene with Lee, Joe and a large group of friends, having a very good time until the wee hours of the particular winter's night until they're interrupted by an irate Randi.  The gathering breaks up, if very loudly, oblivious to Randi, the children and anyone else who might be within earshot.  

    So, perhaps we're finding out that Lee Chandler was just "a fuckin' asshole," one of several deserved expletives that Randi hurls at her husband and his fellow merry makers that night.  A further flashback shows Lee walking to a party store.  We don't initially know the context for this late-night beer run.  More curiuosly, it occurs to the accompaniment of Albinoni's "Adagio Per Archi E Organo In Sol Minore."  Why this funereal piece of music paired with the mundane, if slightly unseemly act?  But then, but then...a further flashback provides the horrible explanation and equally grave aftermath.   

Kenneith Lonergan apparently tried to write the screenplay for Manchester by the Sea without flashbacks, but found that "It just seemed like a pointless march of misery."  It's not such an unusual device these days, the flashback, the invasion of the past into the present of the narrative.  It can certainly be a gimmick in the wrong hands.  Rarely has it been employed with such power as it is in Manchester by the Sea.  With this flood of the past there is performed by Kenneth Lonergan and Casey Affleck a kind of harrowing papier mache, revealing not so much the shape of the man but the impossible holes that remain.     



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