Kenneth Lonergan shatters Sundance (and hearts) with a new masterpiece

Kenneth Lonergan shatters Sundance (and hearts) with a new masterpiece

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea
Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea

Hype is an epidemic at Sundance, where it’s hard to take a piss without hitting something instantly acclaimed. Some blame the altitude. Others more cynically suggest that being overwhelmingly effusive is an easy way to earn attention (and clicks) in an environment where everyone is looking for the next big thing. Me, I tend to overcorrect in the opposite direction, playing it safe by tempering my enthusiasm. At Sundance two years ago, for example, I cautiously qualified my praise for both Whiplash and Boyhood, even though both films basically blew me away; that the two ended up sitting pretty as my favorites of the whole year in cinema is a testament to how reluctant I am to bestow masterpiece status on something I’ve just seen, especially during the multi-day, multi-screening haze of a film festival. Truly great movies require a little mental marination, don’t they?

So take this with the grain of salt everyone should apply to festival reactions, but I don’t need more time, more reflection, or another viewing to confidently declare that Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea (Grade: A) is a tremendous achievement. For his third feature, the playwright-turned-filmmaker has somehow managed to marry the emotional intimacy of his acclaimed debut, You Can Count On Me, with the complicated ambition of his troubled sophomore effort, Margaret. The result is grand tragedy scaled down to everyday proportions—a film so overwhelmingly powerful that I spent most of yesterday afternoon’s world premiere screening either holding back tears or releasing them.

Lonergan opens on Massachusetts water, watching from a safe distance as a man and a boy josh around on a fishing boat. It’s an image the writer-director will return to again and again, like waves crashing into land. The man is Lee Chandler, a withdrawn Boston janitor played, in the great internal performance of his career, by Casey Affleck. Manchester By The Sea devotes a solid chunk of its first act to the odd jobs and daily routines of the character, revealed through a succession of minute-long scenes. That strategy gives the film’s first big turning point the pregnant, full-stop significance it deserves: Driving out to Manchester in a hurry, Lee arrives too late to say goodbye to his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who’s just died of the degenerative heart condition he’s been afflicted with for years—and Lonergan, ever fascinated with the vagaries of interaction, lets the hospital encounter play out in its awkward entirety.

Obligation, the strange business of attending to a deceased relative’s affairs, drives much of Manchester By The Sea. Lee’s biggest concern of many is the looming responsibility of guardianship: The young boy from the first scene is now 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges, a naturalistic star in the making), and Joe stipulates clearly in his will that he wants his surviving brother to take custody. But is this closed-off man up to the task? Part of the problem is Manchester itself, the site of some very bad memories for Lee. Lonergan applies a sophisticated flashback structure, slowly meting out crucial information about his characters’ lives. There’s a great tragedy in this family’s past, one that the film treats like the stuff of opera—complete with swelling music—but with the same accumulation of piercing, mundane detail that defines the present-day material.

The heart of Manchester By The Sea is the relationship between that man and boy from the first scene, united by a grief neither seems capable of fully articulating. The two have a contentious rapport, bickering and talking over each other (not since Robert Altman died has a filmmaker made better use of overlapping dialogue), and Lonergan isn’t afraid to insert some big laughs into a heavy scenario. There’s something almost unspeakably moving about watching someone emotionally unequipped try to really be there for someone else. That ties Manchester By The Sea to a whole line of Massachusetts movies about guarded men bonding through their defense mechanisms. (Lonergan captures his seaside environment with casual clarity, using precise details of language and location.)

There’s really too much to unpack here in one sitting; I could spend an additional several hundred words—and probably will, when the film opens in theaters—on how Lonergan has grown as a visual storyteller (this is his most handsome and controlled film), on the poetic rhythm of the editing, and on a single shattering scene with Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s estranged ex-wife. For now, about all I can do is express awe at the way Manchester By The Sea operates in a near-constant state of heightened emotion, while still sidestepping the obvious sentimental choices at every turn. (Notably, Lonergan films the scene where Lee interrupts a hockey practice to break the bad news to Patrick from the distant perspective of the teen’s teammates.) This is a big, heartbreaking American movie, and it wrecked me like nothing I’ve seen in a very long while. It’s the reason I come to film festivals.

One problem with seeing great movies at film festivals is that they tend to cast lesser films in an unflattering light, illuminating their flaws by comparison. This proved especially detrimental for Captain Fantastic (Grade: C+), which not only had the impossible task of premiering right after Manchester By The Sea in the exact same theater, but also shares some common thematic ground—namely, the death of a loved one, and the questions of custody it provokes. (Dead parents are an early motif of the festival.) Viggo Mortensen stars as a father who’s opted to raise his six kids off the grid, essentially home-schooling them in the Pacific Northwest wilderness and creating a small brood of self-sufficient, socially conscious brainiacs. When his bipolar wife commits suicide, this counter-cultural patriarch packs his kids onto a bus and heads south for the funeral, his principles clashing dramatically with the plugged-in culture encountered en route.

To his credit, writer-director Matt Ross is smart enough to challenge the utopian ideals of his hero, letting various foils raise serious questions about how he’s preparing his kids for the “real” world. More often than not, however, Captain Fantastic settles for lightly amusing fish-out-of-water comedy, scoring easy laughs from a tyke throwing around expressions like “fascist capitalism” and the whole family celebrating Noam Chomsky Day. (“But Noam’s birthday isn’t until December 7,” one of the annoyingly precocious kids protests.) Most irksomely, the film treats death like little more of a plot catalyst, a way to get the family on the road; if I’m unfairly holding this very different film to the standards of the tough act it had to follow, that doesn’t change the fact that Ross shows only a passing interest in how his characters cope with their loss. There’s no wrong way to grieve, except maybe doing a family-band singalong of “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

A better Manchester chaser would have been Whit Stillman’s slight but very funny Love & Friendship (Grade: B+), in which the writer-director applies his urbane wit to an unpublished novella by Jane Austen. It’s a natural fit: Metropolitan, Stillman’s still-hilarious debut, is a very loose modern-world spin on Austen’s Mansfield Park, while the writer-director’s last film, Damsels In Distress, was a campus comedy of manners. Working from “Lady Susan,” Stillman reportedly expands the source material, which concerns a manipulative widow (Kate Beckinsale) who twists the love lives of her family and friends to her own advantage. But beyond a couple of wry touches—like goofy formal introductions for all the characters, and a thick-witted suitor who would have fit in nicely with the doofus frat boys of Damsels—the filmmaker plays Austen fairly straight. The film is a fine showcase for Stillman’s typically inspired bon mots and the atypical charms of his leading lady, tackling a great part—an incorrigible society scoundrel, charismatic and awful in about equal measure—with a liveliness vampire-franchise paycheck roles simply don’t allow.

From best to worst, in just a few short hours: The yin to Manchester’s yang, the flaming garbage pile to Lonergan’s beautiful human wreckage, was 31 (Grade: D), the abysmal new movie from shock-rock auteur Rob Zombie. I’ve never much cared for Zombie’s self-consciously grimy genre movies, though I’ve seen flashes of talent in his previous work—say, the almost-sublime kamikaze finale of The Devil’s Rejects, or the headlights murder scene in his barbarically violent Halloween II. But here, the filmmaker seems to have misplaced the formal chops that made those earlier tributes to bygone exploitation fare bearable. 31 subjects a company of road-tripping carnies to an all-night death match, staged for the amusement of powder-and-wig aristocrats (among them Malcom McDowell, sadly enough). Most of the film is just obnoxious caricatures trading obscenities in a dank dungeon arena, when not doing battle with chainsaw-wielding clowns, a little person dressed up as Hitler, and a sadistic hitman (Richard Brake, almost selling the sub-Tarantino psycho tough-guy dialogue). If any of that sounds fun, you may enjoy 31—the audience at the midnight premiere responded on cue to every “badass” prompt—but the sheer incoherence of Zombie’s action scenes, coupled with the shrill overacting of just about everyone on screen, puts this at the rock bottom of the director’s quasi-transgressive oeuvre.

31 looks especially lacking when stacked against the life-and-death carnage of Green Room, also playing in Park City this week—or, for that matter, Under The Shadow (Grade: B), a Midnight selection as elegant and restrained as Zombie’s is pointlessly over-the-top. Essentially an Iranian cousin to The Babadook, with the subtext shifted from psychological concerns to socio-political ones, the film finds a young mother (Narges Rashidi) coping with both the oppressiveness of post-Cultural Revolution Iran and an evil spirit set on claiming her young child. Under The Shadow is never exactly terrifying (though it has some primo jump scares), and its slow-burn nature is a double-edged sword, to the extent that I found myself thinking both that it could work perfectly fine as a straight drama and that it takes a little too long to get to the horror. Still, even more so than The Babadook, this is a movie that puts its central metaphor to good use, turning all of war-torn Tehran into a haunted house and smartly linking its supernatural threat to the worthless way the heroine is made to feel by her culture. How many other horror movies feature a scene where the main character flees the unholy terror in her home, only to be arrested for not wearing proper attire in public?