Monday, February 20, 2017

So. Yeah. Manchester by the Sea.

I liked it. A lot. I didn't love it, though. And it wasn't the wellspring of emotional devastation I'd heard it was. I like to see movies and stage shows knowing as little as possible about them beforehand so I can experience their narratives organically as they unfold. Which can lead to some unexpected revelations; I somehow thought this movie was a Merchant Ivory-inspired tragic gay love story. And I'm confident that I won't be a spoiler by saying it is absolutely not that. It is, however, tragic. Profoundly tragic. And often in ways the director trusts you to connect the dots for using sometimes just a shadow of the narrative elements you're used to getting to reach your own conclusions and understandings. The movie's compounding tragedies are constructed in an almost casually layered story arc that mixes slow burn with operatic personal and emotional devastation.

Filmed in a palette of dried grays and browns and greens, the movie's visual vocabulary intersperses short, jerky cinéma vérité scenes that feel raw and improvised with sometimes bleak, sometimes pastoral B-roll that establishes locations, provides context or at times is there just because. And then there are the long pauses. They're slightly awkward and often uncomfortable, but they deftly frame key situations, propel the plot and speak volumes about the characters. And oh, the characters. They're complicated and tormented and messy and impossible to pigeonhole. But they're all foundationally good and decent people. Casey Affleck masterfully expands and contracts emotionally over time with sometimes hairpin turns and a spectrum of velocities as he process a hundred lifetimes of extremes. Lucas Hedges plays his 16-year-old nephew who faces tragedy and grief with the lashing-out confusion of a child tempered by the sobering resolve of an adult. They play off each other with a mix of familial love, cautious animosity and cultural stoicism that work both in unison and opposition as their characters orbit the circumstances of each others' lives.

I think the music is a huge distracting jumble of noise, though, jumping inelegantly from Handel to Ella Fitzgerald to quasi-religious choruses of oooing women. I assume the director was trying to mirror the jarring jumpiness of the cinematography with the same approach to the soundtrack, but it ends up belaboring the conceptual framework and ultimately just not working.

There are very good reasons the movie enjoys such critical and popular acclaim, though, and it's truly a revelatory, forward-thinking piece of cinema.

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