Tag Archives: Manchester by the Sea

A Ghost Story (2017)

With very few words and an austere tone, A Ghost Story is going to immediately turn off some viewers. This isn’t a film with an explicit narrative, nor is it a fast one. Where others use special effects to create representations of the dead, the ghost here is almost comical in appearance. Like a lazy Halloween costume, it’s just a figure under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. But this simplicity is intentional. Director David Lowery reteams with Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea) and Rooney Mara (Carol) to create a film that begins with a young couple, but focuses on a ghost left behind. Coming off Lowery’s last film, a larger-budgeted Disney-produced remake, this feels like a cleansing exercise and a return to his independent roots. Although it was well-received at this year’s Sundance Film festival, to some, it felt like an unnecessary student film experiment.

Even at a slim 90 minutes, the film may be too long. The slow, deliberate style is appropriate for the story and tone, but, despite the big ideas at play here, the film would have been improved at 60-75 minutes. The early scenes with Affleck and Mara and their gentle intimacy are compelling and the final time-spanning sequence is incredible, but, in between, the film lags. We spend too much time with the various new inhabitants of the house without progressing the story. The worst of these segments features a ham-fisted monologue from an inebriated hipster about the meaning of life in an infinite universe. This is clearly Lowery’s message to the audience, but the blunt delivery is at odds with the film’s subtle style and can be repulsive in its direct proselytizing.

Even with its simple appearance, the ghost becomes an expressive character.

Lowery is known for his lyrical style of storytelling. His first film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was his version of an early Terrence Malick film. Heavy on voiceovers and light on narration, it used its natural light cinematography to create a sense of nostalgia which has proved to be Lowery’s primary interest.  While that film was soaked in sepia tones, A Ghost Story exists in the haze of fuzzy memory. The sets have a light fog that clouds each scene casting the entire film as something of the distant past. At one point, we meet another ghost in an unintentionally funny conversation. The other ghost is also waiting for someone, but can’t remember whom. As these ghosts wander through the lives of whomever moves into their houses, waiting for their special someone or someones to return, the film unveils itself as a look at our own emotional baggage and the legacy we leave behind. This recalls an intertitle from In the Mood for Love. “He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” The ghosts misguidedly search for a feeling that they may never have again and as Lowery delves deeper into this futile search, the film expands beyond its seemingly limited scope. It becomes a film not just about one couple, but about the passing of time, memory, and the inherent history that every location carries, but rarely shows.

4/5 stars.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea is a tale of terse men trying to cope with emotion. Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), a Boston native, plays Lee Chandler, a man whose older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler; The Wolf of Wall Street) suddenly passes away from a heart condition, leaving him as the guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges; Moonrise Kingdom). Lee is close to his nephew, but because of a past tragedy of his own feels unable to move to back to Manchester.

Despite its somber premise, there is a surprising amount of humor. Lee, Joe, and Patrick are full of foul-mouthed wisecracks about even morbid topics. The Boston accent is also used buoy the writing with words like “shahks” (sharks) providing chuckles on their own. The humor serves as relief from the tragedy the characters face. It pops up most when they get into arguments about funeral arrangements and Patrick’s living situation. Rather than rely solely on loud conflicts or tearful breakdowns, director and writer Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) uses jokes to point out which topics are the most sensitive. They don’t know how to deal with the emotions overtly, so they use quips to address the issues indirectly. The humor provides endearing levity in the midst of their grief.

The awkward, but needed, embraces show their true affection for each other.
The awkward, but needed, embraces show their true affection for each other.

Lonergan directs his actors to understated performances. Stoicism is the main trait of the characters here, especially the men. Lee in particular never appears remotely eloquent. He isn’t comfortable with expressing himself so he chooses not to. Instead he spouts a few reluctant words at a time. Affleck continues the labored drawl he has used in films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Even as his ex-wife tearfully opens up to him about their difficult past, he isn’t able to respond. He doesn’t hold eye contact and quickly leaves the scene. He epitomizes the core of the film: how men unaccustomed to emotion cope when overwhelmed by it.

The sense of family is palpable. The film is intercut with scenes from Patrick’s childhood with his dad and Lee and memories of Lee’s happy marriage to show how strong their bonds are. Even as things fall apart in the present, the love between them, while unspoken, is clear. This makes their predicament more complicated. In his will, Joe arranged, without Lee’s knowledge, for Lee to become his son’s guardian and move in to take care of him. Lee loves Patrick and wants to be there for him, but cannot cope with the remnants of his past that he is reminded of in Manchester. To make matters worse, Patrick isn’t open to moving in with Lee because his friends and school are already set in place. Together they struggle to find the best solution for both of them. Even as their desires are in direct conflict, their love for each other always shows through the arguments.

Manchester by the Sea slowly cements itself as a film about the small details of shared tragedy. Eschewing common melodramatic tropes, Lonergan provides a brief glimpse into the lives of regular people attempting, and often failing, to cope. The cold New England setting provides the perfect tonal backdrop to the film. The landscape is cold, plain, and unglamorous and the director portrays the characters in the same way. These are matter-of-fact people dealing with ineffable misfortune and the film embeds itself within the minutiae of their sorrow.

4/5 stars.