Piano players have it rough. They can have all the talent in the world; they can know Bach and Chopin and Rubenstein by heart and play them flawlessly. And yet, when they sit down at the keys, they’re going to get the same requests from everyone around: “Closing Time,” “Piano Man,” and “Don’t Stop Believing.” Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, “Manchester by the Sea,” feels like that pianist, desperately trying to do something original with a worn premise. The effort, while memorable, is only made that way by the style with which the song is sung (cinematography and editing), the pianist’s voice (actors), and the pure passion they have for the material (direction). But it’s still the same song it’s always been.
This is by no means a direct criticism at the picture itself. All the technical aspects of the picture are stunning. Jody Lee Lipes’s shots make the East Coast’s shoreside, bursting with homes, boats, and marines, look like a cluttered menagerie on the lip of a great titan, ready to strike. Indeed, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), seems constantly at war with himself. Since a horrifying family tragedy struck, Lee hasn’t seen much of his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), nor his family, having exiled himself to the simple life of a handyman in Quincy, MA. When another tragedy strikes, Lee is forced to return to his hometown and confront the demons he once left behind. This includes caring for his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The teenager wants little-to-nothing to do with his uncle, and Lee shares his sentiments.
From there, the film takes a fairly predictable route to its conclusion. But its true beauty is in the gentle restraints it places. Affleck is a revelation as Lee – he loses himself in the quiet reservedness of a man who thinks he has nothing left to forfeit. Director Lonergan allows the camera to just sit, and sit, and dwell on this man who continually traps himself in sorrows of the past. The nonlinear storytelling helps to illustrate the circular motion of storytelling. Lee’s life moves in cycles, each started by a new tragedy. The beginning and end scenes are beautiful bookmarks that help to illustrate this storytelling – much like in 2016’s “Arrival,” “Manchester” seems just as concerned with the road being taken to tell the story as much as the story itself.
The movie is slow, sometimes agonizingly crawling as scenes go on too long for comfort and pauses break the pace. In another film, this would be a hindrance, but “Manchester” thrives in the awkward pauses, the ones we all experience in daily life and want to be over as soon as possible… but we just can’t break them.
Several subplots weave in and out of Lee’s narrative, and many of them are left unresolved. Some are acceptably done. For example, we know that Lee and his ex-wife will probably never end up back together. Lonergan still gives their relationship, both past and present, room to breathe. There is a scene between them – you’ll know the one I’m talking about – that goes on for far too long, and yet you never want it to end. There’s too much said, too much left unsaid, and the sorrow in their eyes ends up communicating further than words ever could. Williams is bitingly real.
Other subplots are not so well left to the gray. There’s an odd criticism of ultra-conservative Christian households (with an even weirder cameo thrown in) that doesn’t serve a purpose except to make us feel sorrier for Patrick. And Hedges gives just as committed a performance as Affleck and Williams, although his character is easily given the weakest of teen subplots. The blend of humor and melancholy, especially in the scenes he shares with Affleck, are handled well by all involved, but when the plot deviates from Lee, we realize that we aren’t given many reasons to care about Patrick.
“Manchester by the Sea” is a slow, pondering examination of family and what it means to lose those closest to you. It’s painful to see, but by the time the credits roll, you feel like you’ve stepped into a real American family’s home for a couple hours. These are great performances, great characters, and at its best, “Manchester” feels like real life. I think that’s the best compliment I could pay it. At its worst, it feels like a familiar tune we’re hearing again. The song goes on, and another pianist will play it, but Lonergan and company have made sure you won’t forget their cover anytime soon. It leaves embers in your mind that you’ll be revisiting for days afterward.