I was on the fence about this one. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s last film (as auteur) was Margaret, which I did not see. His prior film was 2000’s You Can Count On Me, which is what won me over, at least up to the box office window. YCCOM was a morose little film with Laura Linney and a relatively unknown Mark Ruffalo (playing the only role he’d ever play) as brother and sister whose lives were a wreck due to having suddenly lost their parents at a young age. Linney’s fragile life is upended when Ruffalo suddenly shows up after a long absence, and there’s virtually no chance of a “Hollywood” ending because It’s Just Not That Kind Of Movie.
But, here’s the thing: There’s a big difference between morose and nihilistic which Lonergan seems to appreciate really well. His characters are motivated out of concern for each other, and they’re trying to do the best they can but are just overwhelmed by the past. This tends to make a movie much more watchable than one about mostly functional people who treat each other badly, at least for me.
That brings us to today’s feature, Manchester By The Sea. Casey Affleck is Lee, a guy living a meager life as a handyman in Boston, who he gets word that his brother died and (inexplicably to Lee) puts him in charge of his nephew, Patrick. The movie is basically Lee’s struggle regarding what to do with Patrick. We are immediately tantalized with a flashback showing Lee and Patrick getting along famously on a fishing boat with Patrick’s father, Joe (Kyle Chandler, Zero Dark Thirty, Carol) at the helm, so the question becomes “What the hell happened to cause this split?”
Then we get flashbacks of Joe’s heart problem and bitchy wife (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 To Yuma, The Notorious Bettie Page) and of Lee’s happy home life with salty-but-warm Michelle Williams and his three beautiful childr—
Yeah. So. Best case scenario when you see this flashback, which is very early, is a bitter divorce that ruined Lee. But you know it’s not going to be anything that prosaic. Lee is a walking ruin. And where the hell is Patrick’s mother?
That’s your movie, right there. We live through Lee’s tragedy to understand where he’s coming from, but, as with YCCOM, we end up with a situation that’s not exactly a happy ending but still leaves us with respect for the difficult choices Lee makes. Affleck is good, of course, as he always is, though I’ve enjoyed other performances of his more (like Gone Baby Gone). Michelle Williams has a few scenes that’ll rip your heart out.
Yeah, this is a film that’s chock full of acting, and it’s not all of the weeping, broody stuff. That’s the Academy-bait stuff, of course, and Affleck’s turned in a body of performance of the sort that ultimately gains respect for a guy even if he is Ben Affleck’s brother.
Obviously, one doesn’t recommend this sort of film for everyone. But I don’t consider it a downer, myself: Bad things happen to people in life, and what matters is how they handle those things. The little flicker of not-quite-optimism-but-at-least-a-kind-of-indomitability that Lonergan keeps alive is what makes these movies palatable to me and raises it above the Oscar-grabbing despair of the pack. The Boy strongly approved, as well, and for much the same reason.