I called it 11 months ago at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and I don’t think I’ve put it any better since:
“Some Sundance movies are applauded and whoo-whooed, and others just sink in and melt you down. They get you in such a vulnerable place that your admiration is mixed with a kind of stunned feeling, like you’ve been hit square in the heart. Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester-By-The-Sea is one of the latter. It’s not an upper or a midtempo thing, but in no way is it a downer. It pushes the sad button more gently and effectively than anything I’ve seen in at least a couple of decades, and if you’ve got any buried hurt it’ll kill you.
“This is 2016’s first slam-dunk Best Picture contender, and it will definitely result, trust me, in Casey Affleck landing his first Best Actor nomination.”
But I failed to mention one important thing, and that’s the curious fact that Manchester is one of the funniest sad films I’ve ever seen. Filmmakers who’ve attempted funny-sad in the past have mostly used the age-old comic relief strategy. That’s not Lonergan’s game. He’s woven humor into sadness and vice versa like threads in a rope, and not hah-hah humor but the kind that’s laced with irritation or frustration — sardonic, testy, smartassy. Working-class New England humor. Some funny shit.
Never forget that humor is never about mirth, and always about the revealing of hurt or shame or rage. Manchester jokes never reach for outright hilarity (a grotesque concept considering the backstory of Casey Affleck‘s lead character, Lee Chandler) but they always land. Manchester might be the only film to operate on this level. There have probably been other films that have pulled off funny-sad in precisely the same way, but I can’t think of any.
A few observations along these lines:
(1) “Lonergan sidesteps sentimentality simply by treating characters with respect, as human beings with many dimensions, some of them contradictory. [The result is that] deep tragedy is shot through with some truly excellent comedic writing.” — Vox‘s Alicia Wilkinson;
(2) “Given the tragedy at the film’s heart, some will find the humor jarring. But great and constant sorrow can absolutely co-exist with belly laughs –— Lonergan knows it’s how we stay human. And humane.” — Joe Gross, Austin’s American Statesman.
(3) “Manchester is a kind of Rorschach Test: You may spend the film fighting through tears, or you may spend most of it suppressing belly laughs. Either way, you’ll understand that it’s a masterpiece.” — Metro‘s Matt Prigge.
(4) “A lot happens [in Manchester), and a surprising amount of it is very funny. Mr. Lonergan, a brilliant playwright and a sought-after script doctor, is a master of the quotidian absurd. In his work, the laws of the universe are rigged to make human beings look ridiculous, and the species is internally wired to produce the same effect, so no amount of good taste or moral discipline can stop the jokes from coming.” — A.O. Scott, N.Y. Times.
And yet — and yet! — some people, I’ve heard, insist on calling Manchester By The Sea depressing or a downer. There’s probably no reaching people like this. Some are just determined to process movies as either thrill rides, giddy escapism or complex, problematic, adult-angled frowners, and nothing in between.
What we’re all looking for, of course, are movies that sink into our systems and re-acquaint us with the fundamentals, and in some cases with long-buried emotions that our day-to-day routines and responsibilities can’t accommodate. (Naturally.) And when a film makes that kind of connection, you know it’s doing something sublime. And you forget if it’s coming from an up or down or sideways place.
Back to my Sundance riff: “Manchester-By-The-Sea is an American small-town family drama, and it taps right into that thing, that terrible thing that some of us have inside, that awful thing you can’t quite forgive yourself for, that remnant of a nightmare that will never be stilled.
“If you don’t get the difference between ‘devastatingly sad’ and ‘depressing’ then you need to see Lonergan’s drama at the first opportunity. It just floored the hell out of me. I could feel tears welling up during the last third, and especially the last 20 or 25 minutes. It’s in the emotional realm of Ordinary People only better, and somewhat similar to Todd Field‘s In The Bedroom only in a more intimate and pulverizing way.”
But it’s full of odd little chuckles. Like when Kyle Chandler (who plays Affleck’s older brother Joe) swears at his barking dog after draping a blanket over his passed-out wife (Gretchen Mol) on the couch. It’s not a laugh line, but I smile every time I think of Chandler and that dog — “Shutthefuckup.”
If life was guided by a kindly, immaculate, all-embracing God (as opposed to the one we have), Manchester By The Sea would be awash in wins in every category — Best Picture, Best Actor (Affleck), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams) and Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges, Chandler), Director and Screenwriter (Lonergan), Cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes) and Editing (Jennifer Lame).