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Bleak, Mournful 'Manchester By The Sea' Packs An Emotional Punch

Nov 18, 2016
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new film "Manchester By The Sea," the third feature written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan. The film is named for a Massachusetts town to which the protagonist returns to bury his brother and reconnect with his teenage nephew. It stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester By The Sea," Casey Affleck plays a sullen Boston-area custodian named Lee Chandler who lives alone in a small apartment, drinks and gets into fights. Something's eating him, but we don't know what. The big reveal comes midway through the film. Early on, he learns his older brother Joe has died. So he returns to where he lived most of his life, Manchester-by-the-Sea on Boston's north shore, to attend the funeral and console his teenage nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. Then he sits down with Joe's lawyer to read the will and gets a shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA")

CASEY AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I don't understand.

JOSH HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Which part are you having trouble with?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Well, I can't be his guardian.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well...

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I mean, I can't.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well, naturally, I assumed Joe had discussed all this with you.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) No. He didn't. No.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) I have to say, I'm somewhat taken aback.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) He can't live with me. I live in one room.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well - but Joe has provided for Patrick's upkeep - food, clothes, et cetera. And the house and the boat are owned outright.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I can't commute from Boston every day until he turns 18.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) I think the idea was that you would relocate.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Relocate to where? Here?

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well, if you look - as you can see, your brother worked everything out extremely carefully.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) But he can't...

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Yes.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) He can't have meant that.

EDELSTEIN: For his part, Patrick doesn't want to be with his uncle, either, especially if it means leaving home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA")

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) We're not going to be here that much longer.

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Patrick) I'm not moving to Boston, Uncle Lee.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Well, I don't want to talk about that right now.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) You said he left you money so you could move.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Yep. That doesn't mean...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Anyway, what's in Boston? You're a janitor.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) So what?

HEDGES: (As Patrick) You can do that anywhere. There's plenty of toilets and clogged up drains all over town.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I don't want to talk about...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) All my friends are here. I'm on the hockey team. I'm on the basketball team. I got to maintain our boat now.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) You can't maintain...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I work on George's boat two days a week. I got two girlfriends. And I'm in a band. You're a janitor in Quincy. What the hell do you care where you live?

EDELSTEIN: It turns out Lee would rather be anywhere than Manchester-by-the-Sea. His ex-wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, is still in town, remarried and pregnant. And he's clearly persona non grata. People stare and whisper when he passes. Others shun him outright. On the other hand, maybe taking care of Patrick will rekindle his spirit. That's the scenario of many films like "Manchester By The Sea." Life is tragic. But family can save us or at least offer a measure of consolation. That message is right in the title of Lonergan's first film, "You Can Count On Me," which centered on a sister and brother, suddenly orphaned, who grew up, grew apart and reunite under miserable but ultimately hopeful circumstances. But in this movie, Lonergan ups the pain. The characters are even farther apart, the conflicts irresolvable. As Lee wanders the misty seacoast town to Lesley Barber's plaintive score, the events of his life unfolding in flashbacks, the movie is not just bleak but abrasively bleak. It hurts. Casey Affleck has an extraordinary presence. Suffering on screen isn't just second nature to him. It's first nature, with rage just below the surface. His scenes with Patrick are tense, bordering on caustic. Lee tries hard to be fatherly. But Patrick, as played by the nervy young actor, Lucas Hedges, is so overdefendant that he's almost beyond reach. The kid is all mouth. And at a certain point, you have to wonder if Lee even wants to rejoin the land of the living. He has an opportunity when he bumps into his ex, Randi, in the middle of town. And she begs him to talk about their past. Michelle Williams seems to put her soul into every line. But for Lonergan, not everyone can rise to the level of a tragic hero. "Manchester By The Sea" has received ecstatic reviews. But beyond my admiration for the performances and Lonergan's beautifully shaped scenes, I'm not sure how I feel about it. The central tragedy - the thing that destroyed Lee's life - strikes me as too easy, too familiar. And I hate how it's staged and scored in slow motion with loud, agonizing music that seems suited for self-immolation on the opera stage. But you should certainly see it to watch Lonergan, one of the country's best playwrights, go for broke on screen, seeing how far he can push us emotionally before we cry, enough.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's FRESH AIR, Zadie Smith - her new novel, "Swing Time," is about the friendship between two young, biracial girls in England in the 1980s. We'll talk with Smith about class, race, talent and nostalgia.

ZADIE SMITH: I think the idea is that you find some way to restate the things you find valuable in the past, if you find them valuable, in a way that people can live with in this contemporary moment.

BIANCULLI: Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. We'll close with Leonard Cohen singing "Tower Of Song." Next Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we'll play back the interview he recorded with Terry from 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOWER OF SONG")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is gray. I ache in the places where I used to play. And I'm crazy for love. But I'm not coming on. I'm just paying my rent every day in the tower of song. I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn't answered yet. But I hear him coughing all night long, oh, a hundred years above me in the tower of song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.