Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan (2016)
Prepare to be devastated.
My father, a World War II veteran, once told me that the only movie he had ever seen that made him cry was William Wyler’s acclaimed 1946 classic, The Best Years of Our Lives. Obviously the film, concerning the difficulties of returning veterans readjusting to civilian society, spoke to him on a personal level. But it was almost certainly the Oscar-winning performance of Harold Russell as Homer Parish, a double amputee trying to adjust to his new life without hands, that pushed my Dad over the top. And the reason that performance stands out in movie history is Wyler’s decision to cast not some actor portraying a double amputee, but an actual soldier who had lost his hands in the war, essentially playing himself. The performance was great because it wasn’t a performance.
That is essentially the quality of Casey Affleck’s work in Kenneth Lonergan’s (You Can Count on Me) new film, Manchester by the Sea. Affleck as Lee Chandler, the film’s protagonist who seems from the start to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, is not flashy. He uses no visible techniques and never forces anything. He does not appear to be acting at all. He seems to be a Boston janitor plucked from real life who has been the victim of crushing trauma and whom we are following with a camera. Affleck is not acting. He is being the character.
And this film is mostly about character. If you are looking for a tightly plotted thriller or something else particularly plot-driven, you won’t find it here. A plot there is, of course, but the progress of the film is essentially circular, making liberal use of flashbacks and revolving around a devastating event that for all practical purposes destroyed Lee’s life. We meet Lee in his job as janitor in an apartment complex in Quincy, Mass. He is not exactly surly, but he is aloof and occasionally irascible if pushed to it by tenants. He lives alone in a small basement room and spends his nights drinking alone in a bar, where he ignores any women who approach him and picks fights with any men that he even suspects might be looking at him funny.
Things were not always this way. One flashback depicts Lee and his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) on Joe’s fishing boat, with Lee teasing Joe’s young son, asking him whether he would rather be marooned on an island with his father or his uncle Lee. The boy, of course, picks his father. In another scene, we see Lee coming home from a day on the sea with Joe, greeting his own three children, and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams). We don’t, at this point, know why they are no longer in his life. But in Quincy, Lee gets a phone call that his brother is in the hospital in Manchester and may be dying. Lee makes the 90-minute drive to the hospital, but arrives too late to say goodbye.
Lee, barely able to keep himself together over the next few days, must plan his brother’s funeral and take care of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Then comes the reading of the will, at which Lee discovers—to his shock and dismay—that Joe has named him Patrick’s guardian. As we watch his reluctance to accept this responsibility we wonder why he refuses to stay in Manchester—what on earth does he have in Quincy to return to? His janitor job, that barely pays him enough to live on? His active social life? Yet he cannot be convinced to live in his former home town. The mystery of why continues as people in Manchester keep asking, when he is pointed out to them, “That’s the Lee Chandler?” Something has occurred in his past that we only gradually become privy to. Something that can never be set right.
Halfway through the film, my wife leaned over to me and murmured “the Fisher King.” A spot-on observation: In the myth of the Grail, the Fisher King is a severely wounded sovereign, living in a Waste Land. Only by curing his unhealed wound can the Waste Land around him be restored to life and fertility. In the myth, the Fisher King cannot heal himself—only the Grail Knight can bring regeneration to the king and the land. In the earliest version of the legend, the knight does this by asking the appropriate question: Who is served by the Grail? Here, perhaps it is Patrick who takes the role of Grail Knight. We do feel that the relationship with his nephew may be something that can regenerate Lee’s life. But—as in the legend itself—the right question never gets asked. Lee is never healed.
In support of Affleck’s brilliant performance, Hedges gives a convincing and complex portrayal of a sixteen-year old, struggling by turns with the death of his father, the possibility of being torn away from his life as he knows it, the possibility of a reconciliation with his alcoholic mother Elise (an impressive Gretchen Mol), and his own adolescent sexual explorations with two different girlfriends. But it is Williams’ performance as Lee’s permanently damaged ex-wife Randi that raises the film to stratospheric heights. Though she has very little screen time, every second she is on is brilliant. The final meeting between her and Affleck near the end of the film is perhaps the most memorable and unforgettable scene in any film this year. And it is heart-rending because of its understated honesty.
Much of that, of course is also due to director Lonergan, who also wrote the screenplay. Lonergan, who began life as a playwright (his play The Waverly Gallery was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), has written in Manchester by the Sea a very play-like script. Some moviegoers will be disappointed by the lack of explosions, comic book characters, and happy endings, and may not know how to react to the fact that people actually talk to each other for more than ten seconds at a time. But if you want quality drama, this is it. And it will devastate you. If you have never cried at a movie, this may be the one that does it for you. I have a feeling even my Dad would have done so. A solid four Shakespeares for this brilliantly acted and beautifully written film.
Denzel Washington (2016)
Speaking of playwrights and Pulitzer Prizes, August Wilson won two of them, for Fences and for The Piano Lesson. His ten-play “Pittsburg Cycle” chronicles the African-American experience in the United States throughout the twentieth century, with one play set in each decade. In addition to the two Pulitzers, Wilson’s cycle won a Tony for best play in 1987 (for Fences), and five separate New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Play.
Before his death in 2005, Wilson had apparently written an adaptation of Fences for a film treatment, but it took more than ten years for Denzel Washington to bring it to the screen. Wilson’s name is the only name that appears in the film’s credits as author of the screenplay, and what we see on the screen is essentially the play itself, with very little adaptation. Washington, who also plays the protagonist Troy Maxson, and his co-star Viola Davis (who plays Troy’s wife Rose) won Tonys for these same roles in the 2010 limited Broadway revival of Fences, and Washington clearly saw no reason to change anything. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he might have said.
That kind of colloquial language is not much different from the language used by Troy in the film, though his tends to be a good deal more colorful. He is a spellbinding storyteller, especially when his vocal chords are lubricated with a bottle of gin, which they are in the film’s opening scene, as we are treated to a number of stories, some of them tall tales, about his past, his heroics as a star in the Negro Baseball Leagues, his time behind bars, his courtship of Rose. The year is 1957, and Troy is working as a trash collector in Pittsburg. It is ten years since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s “color barrier,” and Troy is 53 years old. He would have been 43 when Robinson broke in—just a few years too old to get a major league contract for himself, if he had still been playing at the time. It’s Troy’s biggest regret, though it is one of many.
Troy resembles no one in modern drama more than Willie Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Like Willie, Troy had a number of dreams that just didn’t pan out. Like Willie, Troy has two sons whom he dominates with his personality. Like Willie, Troy has a wife who delivers a final “attention must be paid to such a man” eulogy.
But unlike Willie, Troy has no optimism left. He is pessimistic to the point of cynicism. His happiest moments are when he can escape his responsibilities momentarily, but he sees life as a drudgery in which nobody gives you anything, you have to work hard and bring home the pay check and not dream about anything else—as a black man, he feels he was born “with two strikes against him,” and thinks his older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is lazy and shiftless for pursing his music. As for his high-school aged son Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy stands in the way of his getting a football scholarship to college, insisting he keep his job at the grocery store and learn a trade that will help him make a living. Whether this is because he is jealous that the boy’s success in sports might take him farther than Troy’s own skills did, or whether he doesn’t want the boy to have his dreams crushed, as he insists is bound to happen in the white man’s world, in any case their rivalry leads to a climactic confrontation.
Miller said that his purpose in Death of a Salesman was to create a “tragedy of the common man.” Wilson’s play is in a similar vein, and is intended as a tragedy but Wilson’s is more classical: The classical tragic hero is a person who transcends average humanity in nobility or ability, as Troy exceeded his peers in sports, though he was not able to achieve what would have been possible for him. He remains somewhat heroic, complaining to the city that only white workers are given jobs as drivers of garbage trucks—an act that, Jackie Robinson-like, results in his becoming the first black driver.
Further, as in a Greek tragedy, there seems to be a curse on his family: He tells a horrific story of his own father’s mistreatment and brutality toward him, and he holds that same kind of anger inside, letting it out at Cory in their climactic confrontation. Cory’s own strong-headedness suggests that he, too, will have similar traits. But Oedipus and Agamemnon do not fall because of a curse. In classical tragedy, it is the character’s own decisions that bring about his downfall. In Fences, those decisions lead not only to Troy’s estrangement from his son, but also the destruction of his marriage.
In the film’s most powerful scene, Troy brings himself to admit to his wife a secret that begins the destruction of the world he has created and maintained for eighteen years. It is in this scene that Davis, up to that point generally in Troy’s shadow, comes into her own The raw emotion unleased just in this scene by both principal actors nearly assures them of Oscar nominations. Oddly, Paramount has been pushing Davis for a Supporting Actress nomination, which is absurd. If she is not the lead actress in this picture, then there weren’t any lead actresses in 2016. Davis deserves to be nominated, and deserves to win, the Best Actress Oscar. Manchester by the Sea’s Michele Williams should be the winner of the Oscar for Supporting Actress. If Viola Davis is nominated in that category, a great injustice will occur, no matter who wins.
Adepo and Hornsby are both excellent in their roles as Troy’s sons, and Stephen Henderson as Troy’s oldest and closest friend Bono in what is essentially the role of chorus in this classical tragedy—he is the figure who, like us, is witnessing thee events, and his responses most nearly reflect our own.
I will say that, when we rose to leave at the end of the film, we overheard someone sitting near us comment, “Well that was the longest two hours I’ve ever spent.” This could well be the reaction of audience members looking for a big action flick, or otherwise suffering from the ADD that afflicts most contemporary moviegoers. This is a film made from a play, and Washington as director has done very little to translate that medium into the more visual and kinetic medium of film. The physical symbol of the fence, for instance, that on stage serves as a constant reminder of the many barriers (some self-erected) in Troy’s life, has little of that effect here. Troy’s brother Gabriel (played by Mykelti Williamson) is essentially a symbolic character on stage, but here seems simply not to fit in very well. And, of course, the film is very, very talky, with little action that is not verbal and emotional. While Wilson’s language is poetic and often sonorous, there is a lot of it for contemporary movies tastes, and Troy’s constant harangues dotted with baseball metaphors seem a bit heavy-handed in the more intimate medium of the wide screen.
But this is a movie you ought to see, for its brilliant acting, its complex and timely themes, and its moving language. I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.