Sometimes things just don’t work out for films that once seemed destined for adulation and awards. There’s no better example from recent years than celebrated playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret.
The follow-up to You Can Count on Me, Lonergan’s Oscar-nominated debut as a film director, Margaret got buried in lawsuits after years in which Lonergan wouldn’t — or couldn’t — deliver a contractually obligated, 150-minute edit of his post-9/11 New York City epic. In the end, Margaret’s story was told by The New York Times Magazine in a story headlined “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece.” An extended cut of the movie is now available (and should be seen by anyone interested in current film), but the bottom line is that Margaret will never find the audience it deserves.
No such fate awaits Lonergan’s masterful third feature, Manchester by the Sea, the story of a handyman with a troubled past and broken spirit made to confront his demons after a death in his family. The film has all the ingredients that make many of Lonergan’s previous works for stage and screen so special.
Most important is a screenplay with the language and rhythm of real-world conversation. Lonergan’s understated dialogue makes most screenplays look hopelessly artificial by comparison. Combine that elusive quality with the deep insight into human nature on display in Manchester by the Sea, and you’ve got the foundation for both a devastating film and a long and potentially unparalleled filmmaking career for Lonergan.
Manchester by the Sea also possesses the one element that was missing from Margaret and seemed to cause Lonergan so much trouble by its absence: a cohesive structure at a limited length that does the story justice. Manchester by the Sea’s insights and secrets are told mostly in flashback, but the ebb and flow of time feels more like the experience of personal memories than a storytelling device built for the screen. The film generates its own sense of mystery as puzzle pieces slowly fall together.
None of this would add up to much without a cast capable of enhancing the grace and beauty of Lonergan’s work. With his unsparing central performance as handyman Lee Chandler, the famously private and celebrity-averse Casey Affleck’s cover finally has been blown. He’s earned every “best actor” award or nomination announced since movie-awards season began last week, with many more to come.
Remarkably, Michelle Williams works just as much magic with the smaller role of Randi, Lee’s estranged ex-wife. There’s one heartbreaking scene in particular, shared by Affleck and Williams near the end of the film, that is so infused with raw emotion it seems certain to earn each actor a prominent and well-deserved place on Oscars night.
It’s often best to see a great film without too much knowledge of its story details. This is especially true for Manchester by the Sea because its structure and methods are unique. When and how aspects of the story arrive on screen is central to the experience of the film. So do yourself a favor and avoid seeing its trailers, all of which give away far too much. Both the audience and the film deserve better.
Manchester by the Sea opens next Friday, Dec. 9, at the Canal Place and Elmwood Palace theaters.