Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content
Mad Cow’s Rating:
While a host of dire circumstances befalling the Chandler family might be seen as over the top, those who take the movie too literally are missing something. The film is about life and how we cope (or not) with grief, guilt and loss. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York, Analyze This, You can Count on Me) does a superb job of describing relationships at their most raw, when the chips are down. Most of the chips are down in this one, conveyed in brilliant acting performances. Lonergan’s superb use of flashbacks gives us the scope of the tragedy.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jessie James…, Gone Baby Gone) and his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Zero Dark Thirty) grew up in a small Massachusetts town, Manchester-by-the-Sea, about 30 miles north of Boston. Lee has moved away and works as a handyman for several apartment buildings in Boston. He hasn’t gone back. Through a series of flashbacks we find out why, after he is summoned to his home town with the news that his brother has died of congestive heart failure, leaving his adolescent nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) with no guardian. Lee goes home and has to handle the funeral arrangements and plans for Patrick. We slowly learn why he doesn’t want to be there and why he is infamous in this tiny town.
Lee is paralyzed with guilt over a tragic mistake he made years before, one that took lives and ended his marriage. His brother was his only constant over the years if and when they kept touch at all. His former close relationship with Patrick has been left dormant for years. Now he is back and barely able to cope except through episodes of anger in which he ends up punching people out in bars. But he’s trying.
We see Lee’s struggle in the surroundings that remind him of everything gone awry. Is he trying to forget or afraid that he will? He can never forgive himself so how is he to live, especially as he is now in charge of a goofy teenager who has just lost his father? He has gone from a happy jokey man to an empty shell. Affleck is brilliant in this role of someone who waivers between catatonic and practical, a shadow of his former self. Plodding and depressed, he does what he has to do. What’s he to do? See a therapist? This is highly unlikely for anyone who grew up in this working class town with just the fishing industry to sustain them.
I should mention that there are lighter moments if one is sharp enough to catch them. It isn’t a laugh a minute but the dialogue is smart and sometimes funny. Just don’t expect too much.
Michelle Williams (Shutter Island, Blue Valentine, and My Week with Marilyn) is incredible as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Their prior warm relationship, full of chemistry, makes the tragedy more overwhelming. That and his obvious adoration of his children allowed Randi to overlook Lee’s shenanigans with his drunken friends carrying on in their basement at all hours of the night. In what may be the most riveting scene in the movie Williams expresses all of the agony Randi too has endured and the regrets she carries.
The film’s travels to the past work better than a chronological story. We are led to think more deeply about the present before finding out what exactly led up to it. The strategy, which is not at all confusing by the way, builds suspense. It allows the viewer to better understand the depth of the characters’ feelings and present lives without having to connect too many dots. That was then. This is now. We all act and react and we all change. Except perhaps for Patrick who is just a kid, abandoned by his mother but much loved by his father and uncle. He’s going to be alright.
Massachusetts is gorgeous. Every scene is a beautiful snapshot that one mentally contrasts with the sad seriousness of the plot. The water and the boats and the old New England houses covered with snow remind us of the ongoing beauty of the world in spite of everything. It’s not exactly redemption but perhaps it’s a sign of hope.
NOTE: Actor Kyle Chandler who plays Joe remarkably resembles the Baldwin brothers. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, I tell you this as a public service to keep this from being a distraction. He is not a Baldwin.