“Manch­ester by the Sea” is mag­nif­i­cent

**** Drama. R. 137 min­utes.

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ann Hor­na­day

There’s an early scene in Ken­neth Lon­er­gan’s “Manch­ester By the Sea,” a grief-drenched drama star­ring Casey Af­fleck and Michelle Wil­liams, that ef­fec­tively an­nounces to view­ers that the en­su­ing movie won’t hew to the usual rules of mul­ti­plex ma­nip­u­la­tion: Af­fleck’s char­ac­ter, a Boston handy­man named Lee Chan­dler, has re­ceived an emer­gency call to travel to his tit­u­lar home town, where he pro­ceeds di­rectly to the hos­pi­tal where some­one close to him has died.

The scene in ques­tion, dur­ing which Lee con­sults with a doc­tor and a nurse dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion in a hall­way, un­folds in real time, as he pro­cesses the most mun­dane de­tails of death — lo­gis­tics, lists, ar­range­ments — with hushed, work­man­like fo­cus.

It’s the kind of se­quence that would be quickly ex­cised in most movies, to get to what most film­mak­ers as­sume the au­di­ence wants, in the form of a big speech or juicy cry­ing scene. But it’s pre­cisely the kind of mo­ment — sub­dued, in­ter­sti­tial, not con­ven­tion­ally ex­cit­ing but teem­ing with life and buried emo­tion — that makes a Ken­neth Lon­er­gan film un­like any other.

“I’ve been in those hall­ways a few times, and you don’t get out of them quick enough,” the film­maker ex­plained in Septem­ber, be­fore “Manch­ester By the Sea” was set to screen at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. To him, such ev­ery­day en­coun­ters are “gold mines” of hu­man drama and unspoken mean­ing.

“If you just swipe away all those mun­dane de­tails, you have to pro­vide what’s of­ten a very false con­flict,” Lon­er­gan ex­plained, adding that it’s of­ten a “very easy con­flict that you’ve seen a mil­lion times. The first time the cou­ple meets and they’re go­ing to fall in love, first they’re re­ally snarky with each other and com­pet­i­tive, and they put each other down. (But) most girls I ended up with I got along pretty well with from the be­gin­ning. The ten­sions came from other things. And those ten­sions are there for any­one to mine who wants to pay at­ten­tion.”

Pay­ing at­ten­tion is a good word for what Lon­er­gan, 55, has done so preter­nat­u­rally well through­out his ca­reer. He grew up in New York, the son and step­son of psy­cho­an­a­lysts (his father is a physi­cian); he be­came best friends with the ac­tor Matthew Brod­er­ick when the two at­tended a pro­gres­sive pri­vate school in Man­hat­tan, where they honed their ob­ser­va­tions of hu­man na­ture while shar­ing the oc­ca­sional joint in Cen­tral Park.

Af­ter writ­ing the en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­ceived 1996 off-Broad­way play “This Is Our Youth,” star­ring an un­known ac­tor named Mark Ruf­falo, Lon­er­gan’s gifts were quickly co-opted by Hol­ly­wood, where he wrote the Robert De Niro come­dies “An­a­lyze This” and “The Ad­ven­tures of Rocky & Bull­win­kle,” and worked on Martin Scors­ese’s “Gangs of New York.” It was un­der Scors­ese’s ban­ner that Lon­er­gan wrote and di­rected the 2000 drama “You Can Count On Me,” which starred Laura Lin­ney, gave Ruf­falo his first break­out movie role, and an­nounced a thrilling new film­mak­ing voice in Lon­er­gan, whose al­ter­nately funny and melan­choly in­sights into the ways peo­ple speak, be­have and nav­i­gate psy­cho-so­cial mine­fields earned him an im­me­di­ate and ar­dent cult fol­low­ing among au­di­ences and ac­tors alike.

“It’s like you’re eaves­drop­ping,” said Michelle Wil­liams of read­ing a typ­i­cal Lon­er­gan script. “You feel like you have like a hid­den cam­era on these peo­ple’s lives, so as you’re read­ing it, you can see the whole thing, to­tally un­bro­ken.”

Af­fleck con­curred. “It feels like noth­ing’s hap­pen­ing,” he said. “So many of the scenes have a lot of con­flict in them, but the con­flict is al­most never about what the movie’s about in any way. “

Af­fleck, whose haunted, pow­er­fully af­fect­ing per­for­mance in “Manch­ester By the Sea” has earned him early front-run­ner sta­tus in the Os­cars race, wasn’t ini­tially sup­posed to be in the film, which was con­ceived by pro­duc­ers Matt Da­mon and John Krasin­ski as a project for Da­mon to di­rect and star in; Lon­er­gan was con­tracted to write the script.

Da­mon’s sched­ule even­tu­ally led him to cede di­rect­ing du­ties to Lon­er­gan, who a few years ear­lier had en­dured one of the most ex­haust­ing pe­ri­ods of his ca­reer, when his sopho­more film, “Mar­garet,” be­came en­tan­gled in a nasty cre­ative, le­gal and fi­nan­cial dis­pute with fi­nancier Gary Gil­bert, who took is­sue with how long Lon­er­gan took to edit the film, and was un­happy with the fi­nal prod­uct, go­ing so far as or­der­ing his own edit of the film and su­ing Lon­er­gan for breach of con­tract. (The case was fi­nally dis­missed in 2014.)

Al­though “Mar­garet” was hailed as a mas­ter­piece when it fi­nally re­ceived a small the­atri­cal re­lease in 2011, Brod­er­ick, who has ap­peared in all three of Lon­er­gan’s films, noted that “it wasn’t so clear” that his friend would be given an­other chance to di­rect. “He was in a lot of trou­ble,” Brod­er­ick re­called. “A lot of peo­ple were very mad at him.”

Call­ing “Manch­ester” an “amaz­ing come­back,” he added that Lon­er­gan never lost con­fi­dence in his own voice. “He’s had that since he was a teenager,” he said. “There’s a level there where he’s just sure of him­self. He trusts him­self at some deep level.”

Claire Folger, Road­side At­trac­tions and Ama­zon

Casey Af­fleck in “Manch­ester By The Sea."

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