Friday, 24 February 2017

Manchester By The Sea (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: Lee (Casey Affleck), upon the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), has to help his grieving family with the funeral arrangements as well as taking care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As he struggles with his menial job and socially withdrawn existence, Lee connects with Patrick and begins to come to terms with his past and his distant relationship with everyone around him.

Between last year’s ├╝ber disappointment with Triple 9 and his involvement in the navel-gaze to end all navel-gazes Gerry, Casey Affleck has honestly never felt like an actor I should take particular note of. Once again, I am quite happy to be proven wrong and he does just that here. While his character definition of being emotionally detached from pretty much everyone would usually lend itself to easy jokes about wooden acting, the way he gives so much agency is incredible and he sells his emotional breakdown insanely well. Like, to the point where it felt eerily realistic and slightly uncomfortable.

Lee’s family checks out, from the embittered ex-spouses played by Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol to Joe himself who gives his flashback scenes the immediacy they needed given how much he is posthumously revered, but other than Lee himself, the other big highlight here is Hedges. Patrick, on paper, is kind of a douchebag and should give Lee all the reasons he needs to never socialise with anyone. But with the way Hedges portrays him, it breaks that barrier of obnoxiousness and feels realistic in his abrasiveness. Then again, when you’re acting in a film which also features Matthew Broderick, chances are that you’ll likely avoid being the most annoying actor on set.

Something that becomes very apparent within moments of the film commencing that this has a very deliberate and laboured-over look to it. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes clearly put a lot of thought into each individual scene and how they should be framed, almost literally with how picturesque these scenes look. It’s like they were trying to make sure every single frame would qualify for One Perfect Shot, and I can’t exactly disagree with that assessment. From the cold and snow-covered shots of a wintery Massachusetts to the handheld disorientation of the post-wake house get-together to the lonesome mood of the driving scenes, this is incredibly striking visually.

Of course, as I’ve said on record before, visuals mean jack if they aren’t being used to tell an actual story. Sure enough, we have a real textual slow burner this time around. Starting out with Lee doing odd jobs for some tenants, which range from the uncomfortable to the outright aggressive (those who work in trades or even retail should see hints of the familiar here), we get a picture of how withdrawn Lee is in his everyday life. Sure, seeing him trying to do what he’s supposed to and still getting berated is enough to get us on-side, but honestly, the first half can feel a tad overdrawn. I did start getting anxious after a while about when the other shoe was going to drop and everything that we’ve seen would be placed in a greater context. Then, about halfway through the film, the shoe did indeed drop… square on my stomach.

Without getting into explicit spoilers, this is a Your Name level drama bomb with the kind of emotional intensity that would usually lead to melodrama, but is kept grounded by both Affleck’s performance and the pitch-perfect direction. Not only does it drive home why Lee is so isolated, it also brings a rather depressing thematic notion. Between this and the rather mundane introduction, we see that no matter how much we try to do the right thing, it can still end disastrously despite our best intentions. It’s quite upsetting to say the least, but it still presents an interesting idea that leads to quite a lot of teary-eyed contemplation. In case I haven’t made it clear yet, this is definitely a film worth contemplating through a wave of sobbing.

From that point on, the film’s emotional content begins to resonate a lot stronger but it also dips its toes into other dramatic territory. And by that, I mean indie quirk… oh dear. Okay, in fairness, it doesn’t lead to massive tonal shifts and it’s probably a subconscious attempt to bring the film back up after the quite harrowing emotions that make themselves known. However, once it gets into areas involving Patrick’s girlfriends and the attempts to make Lee socialise and (possibly) start a new relationship, the levels of awkwardness start to make things uncomfortable and not in a good way like earlier. It probably doesn’t help that it’s around here where Broderick makes his one-scene appearance, and bloody hell, the guy still embodies cringe like few other actors could ever manage.

Of course, given the emotional threads still running through even these scenes, the weaker points that crop up aren’t even close to being enough to ruin the film. Hell, even the ending with its rather anti-climactic tone still works with how it shows Lee not completely cured of his woes, but at least fitting into a better niche within his own life.

All in all, I haven’t had a film punch me square in the feels like this in quite some time and I honestly recommend it on that alone. The acting is top-notch, with Casey Affleck officially entering my radar of actors to watch out for in future, the writing skirts melodrama and sticks the landing right into true emotional resonance and the visuals are just plain gorgeous, making even the coldest of scenes look like they should be framed and mounted on the wall of a Point Piper home.

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