Manchester by the Sea ruminates on death by focusing on irony of life — a film review

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Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions
Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions

It’s been a long time coming, but writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is back, and this time, there’s no ignoring his new movie. Manchester by the Sea has already racked up major awards by film critics’ organizations, such as the New York Film Critics Circle and The National Board of Review. It was not long ago that a battle for final cut of his previous movie, Margaret (Margaret offers brilliant riff on human connection; see rare director’s cut screening) overshadowed the quality of that extraordinary film. This time, there’s none of that news and all of that quality in a movie that once again explores essential existential questions grounded in human drama.

Manchester by the Sea centers around Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a man coping with the sudden death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) who, in his will, has entrusted Lee to be the guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee’s reticence comes to be revealed in flashbacks with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) that never fully congeal until more than half way through the two-hour-plus movie. It turns out that the facts behind the dreariness of this man are far beyond the loss of his brother. The layers of Lee’s pain is impressively handled by Affleck. Lee’s short fuse comes from an obscure internalized pain thar teeters on a simmering abyss of anger and despondency below a superficial steely attitude. The actor gives an astonishing performance of reserve leaden with a thin mask of isolation. In an impressive accomplishment, he acts against himself.

Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions
Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions

This is not a downer of a movie, however. The film’s dreary theme is contrasted by a carefully balanced sense of humor that remains consistent throughout. There’s nothing incredibly funny about death, but its ironic entanglements with life are always humorous. The film floats on Lonergan’s brilliant counterpoint of a score filled with famous adagios and sonatas contrasted against mundane, humbling life on screen. During Joe’s funeral, Lonergan removes the diegetic sound completely and slows the images down as mourners greet each other and a priest gives a sermon. The only sound is a majestic piece of music from Handel’s Messiah. As Lee and Patrick sit next to each other in a pew, the vibration of a smart phone interjects itself into the soundtrack. Still in slow motion, Patrick struggles to remove his cell from his pants pocket and Lee turns to look at him. This drawn out bit calls attention to how life, in all its mundane quality, continues in the face of death. It also downplays all the nobility and solemness humanity has tried to build around the construct of a funeral.

Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful subversion of death and grieving. Characters struggle with real emotion as they learn to come to grips with loss in the face of their continued existence beyond those they love. What breaks Patrick down about his dad’s death is the idea his father’s body must be stored in a freezer until after winter, as it’s only in the thaw of spring that the historic cemetery where his plot is located can be dug up for his burial. Suddenly frozen chicken in the freezer becomes a harsh confrontation with reality for the teen. By confronting such ironies, Lonergan magnifies profound loss. By showing life, love and family as something vibrant and irrepressible alongside the finality of death, he joins them intimately like few filmmakers have done before him.

Roadside Attractions
Roadside Attractions

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Programming Note: On Sunday evening, Dec. 18, join Independent Ethos’ co-founder and creative director and Vice Chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle Hans Morgenstern for a special screening of Manchester by the Sea at the Coral Gables Art Cinema where he will host an exclusive group for a meeting with the cinema’s director of programming, Nat Chediak. We will meet on the second floor of the cinema at 5:30 p.m. for check-in. Then, Nat will discuss his role as programmer at the theater. We will also get a tour of the projection booth before Hans introduces the film to the group and watches it with him at 6:30 p.m. Hans will also be available to discuss the movie afterward. This is part of our program “Independent Ethos Insider’s Tour of the Movies” co-sponsored by The Knight Foundation, Continental Film & Digital Labs and Magna-Tech. You can purchase tickets via this link:

Independent Ethos Insider’s Tour of the Movies

Look for the Independent Ethos event priced at $16.75. You also get a free drink (which includes beer or wine) and a small popcorn. Tickets are already selling and seating is very limited so buy them ASAP.

Hans Morgenstern

Manchester by the Sea runs 137 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area on Friday, Dec. 2, at AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach, Cinepolis Coconut Grove, Coral Gables Art Cinema. Further north, in Broward County, it is playing at the Gateway Fort Lauderdale. In West Palm it’s at the Cobb Downtown Gardens Palm Beach Gardens, Palace Boca, Shadowood Boca, Living Room Boca, Movies of Delray Delray Beach. It arrives at O Cinema Miami Beach on Dec. 9. We caught this movie during the Key West Film Festival (Key West Film Festival wraps 5th year with brilliant films big and small).

(Copyright 2016 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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