Film review: Manchester by the Seaby James Robins
A family drama that follows a sad, angry man forced to confront his past.
The source of this taciturnity is revealed in flashback midway through the film – a tragic moment of drunken forgetfulness that leads to unimaginable pain. However, Kenneth Lonergan, writing and directing, plays this horror scene as a comedy of errors, a humiliating farce that undercuts whatever heady emotion ought to be knocking us sideways.
Such ploys lend the picture an air of disjointed obliqueness. For a story about the inhibiting qualities of mourning, this looks a little strange.
You can see that Lonergan is attempting a slow, natural build-up towards pathos and catharsis, but these things never arrive, partly because of the dry jokes offloaded at inopportune moments and the unintended laughs that come at times of arch seriousness (crying over frozen chicken, for example).
Affleck’s performance may also be partly to blame. He’s so outwardly rigid and brow-beaten that any empathy we may feel crashes on his expressionless face like the Atlantic on the Massachusetts coast. The best emoting he can manage is a mild grimace that bares his bottom teeth, which certainly isn’t enough to survive on. During awards season, these turns come to be called “controlled” or “tightly wound”. I just wondered how he could get away with doing so little.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t a bad film. But it does languish, suspended between ultra-sincerity and inadvertent absurdity. ••½
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