“Manchester by the Sea” is magnificent
**** Drama. R. 137 minutes.
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.”
Casey Affleck in “Manchester By The Sea."