Manchester by the Sea is story telling at its best

The ultimate weepie speaks volumes in its silence

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Awards season is always a dividing time, especially in the UK, where movies that have been lauded as ‘the best of 2016’ aren’t released until 2017 (Downsize’s review of 2016 will run from FEB-JAN). So, for a long time I have had to stew in the praise for films I haven’t been able to form an opinion on yet, meaning that any views on the film have been skewed and affected by media influence. For this reason, I attempted to approach Manchester by the Sea with a certain level of cynicism to counteract the excitement that had been conditioned into me. Not long after sitting down in the cinema all cynicism was pounded into a million little pieces as Kenneth Lonergan’s latest disarmed me with an unexpected humour. It quickly became clear that there was a reason why this film has been batting off praise from all angles.

Casey Affleck leads the charge as the emotionally unavailable Lee Chandler, who must move back home to Manchester, Massachusetts to become the sole guardian for his nephew Patrick after his brother Lee dies of a heart attack. Lee has trouble with the idea of moving back home due to his terrible associations he has with the city and he fails to be the emotional rock that the teenage Pat needs. You would not be blamed for believing that this film is nothing but award season pandering. Lee’s past is a mountain of melancholic misgivings that keeps revealing a higher peak as the clouds begin to dissipate.

Lee Chandler manages to be a frustrating character in every way while somehow still avoiding becoming a pain in the ass. Aware of the influence that this event will have on Pat, he remains oblivious of a satisfactory way to handle the situation, dragging the boy to funeral parlours, will readings and informing Pat that he must uproot his life and move to Quincy. Lee constantly asks other people what he needs to do to make things alright and his insecurities are consistent and clear throughout the viewing. He is a self-destructive man who does not trust himself to handle responsibility for another, and with good reason. He inspires sympathy in every bad decision because each mistake he makes is explainable and that is something that is difficult to instil into a character. Whilst this is mainly down to the writing of the character it cannot be understated how much Affleck’s mumbling vulnerability adds to this. Those who enjoyed his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will know that Casey Affleck can do vulnerability like no one else.

But beneath all its weighty drama, death and sadness the film finds time to give space to the little things. Lucas Hedges allows Pat to have fun as a normal teenager despite all that is going on around him. Scenes of Pat attempting to get his end away with one of his girlfriends are played like they’re straight out of a screwball comedy. The dialogue maintains a witty back and forth in almost all scenes featuring Lee and Pat and even in moments of gut wrenching sadness the film still manages to find laughs. In particular, a scene involving a midnight snack and a freezer door.

The film is a masterclass in pacing and appropriateness, taking a back seat in the life of Lee it introduces us to his dissatisfaction with life through the goofy words of the clients he serves. It holds back on revealing the true nature of Lee’s relationship with Manchester until it knows its viewers are ready for it. Gut punch follows gut punch follows gut punch but the film never becomes a slog. It hops from the miserable to the comic in refreshingly organic ways. The beginning the film takes a more documentarian approach to Lee’s life, taking a back seat and allowing the actions to speak for themselves. While the dialogue stands out it is in the silence that Manchester by the Sea truly shines. When faced with bad news Lee does not say much, he contorts his face subtly and mumbles some contraction. Affleck acts as a real life Kuleshov effect, allowing viewers to experience the news fresh through Lee’s view rather than being told what to feel. Brevity is the true hero of the piece.

Recommendation

Not everyone wants to feel sad when they go to the cinema, and to those people I say that if there was one film to break that rule for it is this. The film is not a Requiem for a Dream style journey into despair more than it is a movie about moving on. There is something positive to find in every interaction. Always something beautiful to notice.

The film is about characters, it is not spectacle heavy but does have its moments of catharsis. it’s big on laughs and sustains a surprising level of entertainment throughout. It may not be a film that you will watch multiple time but it is a film that will have an effect on anyone who isn’t a miserable cynic on a molecular level. I am trying and failing to come up with criticisms of Manchester by the Sea.

Affleck’s latest stumbles out the gate

Live by Night tells a compelling character drama beneath a basic gangster film

Ben Affleck has a solid track record as a director, whilst maintaining a steady level of entertainment his films have managed to be increasingly serious, pulpy fiction that is based in a heavy-set reality. Live by Night is the latest production from the Boston based star. He comes fresh from his DC regimented fitness regimen into ill-fitting suits and prohibition era Florida.

Affleck’s lead, Joe Coughlin, is a principled man, we are introduced to this by the first scene of the film, voice over narration over still of the first world war. After serving Joe grew disdainful of hierarchies and refuses to take orders from another man again; “I left a soldier, I came back an outlaw.” Therein lies the central conflict of the movie and Joe Coughlin’s character. He enters a life of crime to avoid taking orders until he finds himself coerced into organised crime and so into a structure of taking orders once more. The dramatic weight of the movie rests in the conflict built into Joe. The issue is whether he can maintain his steadfast principles whilst finding success in a business that is built by people who hold none.

The dialogue of the characters is poetic and deliberate, it’s all very cinematic and unreal. Joe’s narration provides exposition for each scene as we hop from conversation to conversation. If I was being harsh I would say that the film breaks the rules of ‘show, don’t tell’ all too often. It is clear when watching that the film was based off a book and in this case, it is not necessarily a compliment.

Live by Night wanders on the fringes of being just like films you’ve seen a hundred times before. It possesses the same story beats as films like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco but tries to hold on to the central premise that this is a film about one man’s desire to remain a ‘good man.’ At some points this comes off but for too much of the film it loses site of what it is and instead becomes a basic gangster film that offers nothing new.

The gangster style conflicts at the centre of the film are all too easy to deal with. Each victory comes from hiding behind a wall and then shooting your enemy and the repercussions of the violence are uniformly skipped past via montages that try to coast by on the merits of their cinematography and nothing more. The film takes the easy route too often with the meat of its story, Joe battles against Italian and Irish mobsters, evangelical Christians and the KKK. It’s hard to come up with a collective of people easier to demonise outside of the Nazis, this means the film dedicates very little time to developing its threats. Meaning that the main villains of the film never seem to truly threaten Joe. This leads to the film’s most frustrating sequence, where a confrontation with the KKK that has been building up for most of the film is completely resolved in a two-minute montage.

All secondary characters in the movie appear to be hugely undeveloped, so much so that they appear to be irrelevant to how the story progresses. Characters are inorganically brought into the story to serve their purpose and then leave when the story is finished with them. The majority of characters are low effort stereotypes with little likeable qualities or charisma, there is a chance that this was an intentional in order to demonise criminals and thugs who intend to die as criminals and thugs, but it is almost too easy of a way to shift empathy onto Joe as the only humanised character in the film.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to make Sienna Miller’s Emma appear as some sort of moral litmus paper for Affleck’s character. However, his circumstances, his wife, his career and behaviour perform this same purpose and so she is an extremity that the film could do without. All in all too many things in the film serve the same purpose. The film does not mix up the action and drama in enough significant ways to keep it interesting and takes too long to get going. The film tries to reflect Joe’s ambivalence toward crime and wholesomeness, but in doing so it results in a beige character drama with a light crime overlay.

Recommendation

Live by Night appears to be disinterested in 90% of its content, it is a gangster film that doesn’t want to talk about gangster life. If you have managed to see any of the films near non-existent marketing then you may feel hard done by the film not doing what it says on the tin, but for all the film’s negatives it is still an interesting character drama about a man conflicted.

It deserves commendations for appearing as if it were a regular gangster film when in fact it is telling a different, more humanist story. It is a film for contemplation rather than cheap thrills, and when viewed as such it is a rewarding experience with some great dialogue and interesting reflections. It just wastes too much of its screen time.