Manchester By The Sea

manchester-by-the-sea-movie-poster

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s never easy recovering from grief whether it involves loss of a loved one or dealing with the now inescapable fact that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Watching Casey Affleck’s character in “Manchester by the Sea,” I wonder if he will ever get past the first stage. If he’s lucky, he just might make it to the second. While some are able to get past their grief, others are doomed to be stuck in it for an eternity.

Many movies about grief have been made over the years, but few feel as bitingly honest as “Manchester by the Sea” does. It is the latest work from writer and director Kenneth Lonergan who previously gave us “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” and he really tops himself with this one. While this may, on the surface, seem like a depressing movie, it is one filled a surprising amount of laughter and a wealth of interesting characters whom we watch struggle with the steep hurdles life has thrown at them as well as the snowy weather which chills all those who live in Massachusetts during the winter months.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler who, as the movie starts, works as a janitor and lives in the tiniest of apartments in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is a quiet man and one who is not quick to make friends, especially with those who stare at him for a couple of seconds too long. His face seems as frozen as the snow he constantly shovels off his front porch, so we know the movie will be a journey into discovering how Lee ended up looking so bereft of life.

One day, Lee gets word his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away after suffering a heart attack. This forces Lee to drive to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to meet up with family members and relatives he has long since become estranged from, and his reaction to seeing them all seems strangely serene as if he has been preparing for this moment in a way no one else would bother to. But as the movie goes on, we come to see why Lee can never again be comfortable in his hometown as it is filled with memories and ghosts he may never ever put behind him.

Now in many ways this movie sounds like a typical one about someone reflecting on the memory of a friend who is no longer living, but Lonergan never tries to take the easy way out here. He presents us with characters who are ever so real, and their reactions to the tragedies thrown in their faces feels honest as one never responds to something so painful in the way you might expect. Everyone is far from perfect and no one here is easily likable, but the characters grow on you as they attempt to navigate past the wreckage of their lives.

Lonergan’s talent as a writer has never been in doubt, but what astounded me most about “Manchester by the Sea” is how confident his direction is. His cast ends up giving such naturalistic performances to where they inhabit their characters more than play them. I never felt like I was watching a movie, but instead it seemed like I was eavesdropping on people whose lives and problems feel more real than we ever could expect. Pulling something like this off requires major talent, and Lonergan has it in massive supply.

All eyes are on Affleck who gives what is far and away one of the best performances of 2016. His character of Lee Chandler reminded me of William Hurt in “The Accidental Tourist” and Nick Nolte in “Affliction” in that those actors played characters so damaged by horrific tragedies in life to where they could no longer process a wide range of emotions. Affleck has a tricky role here as Lee looks to be experiencing intense grief from start to finish, but at the same time he is constantly running away from circumstances which will cause those emotions to overwhelm him in a way he feels he can never handle. This must have been an exhausting role to play, but it’s no surprise to see Affleck rise to the challenge.

There is not a single weak link to be found in the cast here as each actor, no matter how small their role is, creates a multi-dimensional character worth following. Michelle Williams in particular has a show stopping moment as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, as she tries to make peace with him after all they have been through. Williams has always been fearless in exploring emotions many of us have tried to numb ourselves to whether we realize it or not and, just like she did in “Blue Valentine,” she digs deep into the tragic nature of her character as Randi appears far more ready to deal with past than Lee is.

I also have to single out Lucas Hedges who gives an honest portrayal of a teenager as Lee’s nephew, Patrick. So many teenagers in movies these days seem designed to appeal to a popular demographic regardless of whether the target audience can relate to them or not. But Hedges gives us one who quickly reminds us of how we juggled a number of girlfriends (if we were lucky to, that is) while dealing with a tragedy no one that young should ever have to deal with. Hedges is a real find as he makes Patrick a far more mature character than his emotionally wounded uncle, and he is as unforgettable as Affleck is in this movie.

In a year which proved to be a mediocre one for motion pictures, “Manchester by the Sea” is easily one of the best for many reasons. If it has any flaws, they are hard to see on the first viewing. But even if you do spot any flaws, they are not enough to take away from how great a movie this is. Lonergan has given us a cinematic masterpiece which demands your attention as it deals with a subject that is never easy to grapple with. While the movie’s ending proves to be understandably ambiguous, he never leaves these characters without a sense of hope for the future.

Watching this movie reminded me of an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Pit Bull Sessions” in which Frank Pembleton and Paul Falsone interrogate a man whose pit bulls have been trained for dogfighting have killed his grandfather. This man, who was played by Paul Giamatti by the way, cares for his dogs far more than he does for any member of his family to where he shows little, if any, remorse for what has happened to his grandfather. Falsone is incensed over how the son seems indifferent to what has happened to a member of his family, and it leads to a classic exchange between him and Pembleton.

“That bastard can feel,” Falsone says.

“He can’t, that’s the horror,” Pembleton replies.

Sad but very true.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Five Nights in Maine

Five Nights in Maine poster

When it comes to dealing with grief, there is no textbook with instructions on how to cope. In movies we often see characters react to the death of loved one in a way that feels overly dramatic and never real. Sometimes the tears come right away, but other times you are simply in shock as accepting the reality of a death takes a long time. We are lead to believe everyone grieves in the same way, but that is simply not true as writer and director Maris Curran shows us in “Five Nights in Maine.”

We are introduced to Sherwin (David Oyelowo) while he is having a wonderfully intimate moment with his wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg), and then a few scenes later he gets a call from the police informing him she was killed in a car accident. Overwhelmed by this sudden loss, Sherwin goes on alcoholic binge to deaden the pain which seems never ending. Out of the bluw, he receives a call from his estranged and terminally ill mother-in-law, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), who invites him to stay with her at her secluded home in rural Maine in order to find a way to deal with the loss of someone they cared so much about.

Now at this point “Five Nights in Maine” looks to be one of those Hollywood movies where two people from different parts of life come together to sort out their differences and come to see what makes their suffering the same. Well, this movie is and isn’t that. What’s fascinating is how Sherwin and Lucinda don’t share grief as much as they compete with each other over who is grieving the most. It’s almost like a variation on a classic Ethel Merman song:

“Any grief you can feel, I can feel greater. I can feel it greater, greater than you.”

“No you can’t!”

“Yes I can!”

“No you can’t!”

“Yes I can!”

“No you can’t!”

“YES I CAN! YES, I CAN!”

Is this the best way to deal with grief? Perhaps not, but it is the way Sherwin and Lucinda decided to take. Sherwin tries to reason with Lucinda who is cantankerous and difficult to deal with, and it turns out Lucinda’s last meeting with her daughter did not go well at as Fiona returned from it very upset. As the movie goes on, you wonder if it is possible for either of them to find any common ground on Fiona’s passing. After a while, you just hope and pray they find a way through their immense pain to move on with their lives or, especially in Lucinda’s case, what’s left of them.

If there is one reason to see “Five Nights in Maine” other than the wonderful cinematography by Sofian El Fani, it’s the performances. David Oyelowo, criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination for his performance in “Selma,” reaches some deep emotional depths as Sherwin. The reaction Sherwin gibes off upon learning of Fiona’s death feels so amazingly genuine that you wonder how Oyelowo was able to portray it with such piercing honesty. This is clearly not an actor who takes the easy way out when it comes to any role he takes on.

Wiest, an actress we don’t see enough of these days, gives her strongest performance in quite some time as a mother facing death’s door and trying to understand why her daughter made it through there before she did. She is not out to make Lucinda an easily likable person, but she does show the cracks in her stern face as the reality of Fiona’s death begins to settle in.

There’s also a wonderfully understated performance here by Rosie Perez who plays Lucinda’s nurse, Ann. This character serves to fill in the missing blanks of which Sherwin was not witness to when Fiona met with Lucinda for the last time. Knowing how sassy Perez can be on screen or during her time on “The View,” her performance in “Five Nights in Maine” is a compassionate one which doesn’t require her unbridled enthusiasm to make it work. Watching her here serves as a reminder of her Oscar nominated performance years ago in Peter Weir’s “Fearless,” and how dare we forget how good she was in that one.

Curran, just as Josh Mond did with his film “James White,” sticks the camera right in his actors’ faces to where their every little gesture and facial movement comes to speak volumes when words cannot do the same. She is also not a director looking to spell out everything for the audience which I admire, and she doesn’t bang them over the head with a shamelessly manipulative film score. Speaking of which, David Boulter’s music helps heighten how lost the characters are in their own wilderness of pain and guilt.

Having said all that, I cannot help but have mixed feelings about “Five Nights in Maine.” While the acting is stellar and the direction strong, Curran’s screenplay feels strangely incomplete. While the actors are able to plumb the depths of their characters, Curran ends up keeping us at an arms-length distance from them. I came out of this movie feeling like I could have gotten to know them better, and their resolution over the loss they experienced does not feel entirely fulfilling. Like I said, Curran doesn’t spell everything out for the audience, but I wished she had dug even deeper into the characters’ psyches to give us something more memorable.

There is a lot to like about “Five Nights in Maine,” but I found some time after watching it that it didn’t leave much of an aftertaste. Overall the movie is a near miss for me. The performances are strong, but the story and the screenplay are an incomplete puzzle with pieces which shouldn’t be that hard to find. This movie quickly reminded me of the Peter Gabriel song “I Grieve” which offered a far more complete journey through grief in just a few minutes’ time. When this movie concludes, it still feels like Sherwin and Lucinda still have a long way to go to find peace with what happened.

Five Nights in Maine Oyelowo and Wiest

* * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.