Manchester by the Sea (2016)

2017 #134
Kenneth Lonergan | 137 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Manchester by the Sea

One of the frontrunners of the 2016-17 awards season, Manchester by the Sea centres around Lee (Casey Affleck), a taciturn sort who’s called back to the eponymous hometown (which he’d left behind for reasons that are initially kept a mystery to us viewers) when his brother dies, naming Lee as the guardian of his teenage son (Lucas Hedges). As Lee attempts to figure out his new role, he’s plagued by the memories and emotions from why he left Manchester in the first place.

Manchester by the Sea is not a plot-driven movie. Even the mystery I alluded to above doesn’t play by ‘the rules’, with the answers being revealed about halfway through rather than near the end. There’s still a story, obviously (see above), but it’s more of a character study about people coping with grief — not in the wailing, all-consuming way you might typically associate with grief being depicted on screen, but in a more subdued, naturalistic manner. In harmony with that, there’s an element to it which is, not irreverent, but certainly mundane — like making calls to funeral directors over breakfast, for instance — and scattered with darkly comic realities, like paramedics struggling to get a bed into an ambulance. Indeed, for a film about such grim subjects, it’s surprisingly funny. But, as I’ve said in many reviews before, that’s life: the world is still funny, and we often still laugh, even when tragedy is all around.

Funereal

Given all that, it’s not surprising it was Casey Affleck’s performance that attracted most attention and won most of the awards. That’s not undeserved — he’s the core of the film, and it’s a powerful but understated performance — but Lucas Hedges is also brilliant in a part that could’ve been given short shrift. In fairness, if we’re talking about awards, he got plenty of nominations too. So too Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife. She’s not bad, but her awards recognition is all really for that one scene — you know, the one they always played as the film’s clip, and that’s alluded to on the poster. Indeed, it’s interesting how prominent she is in the marketing — her role is central to the state Lee’s in, but the actress herself isn’t on screen very much. Her absence is more felt than her presence, even.

It’s understandable that one scene became such a focus — it’s a powerful moment of great importance to the characters (and, more cynically, is virtually the only major sequence with the two name lead actors). In some respects, however, I think the film’s most powerful moment comes at the other end of the film’s timeline: when we learn about what happened in the past, it ends with ‘the morning after’, when Lee faces what he has done and looks for the punishment he feels he deserves; instead he finds only understanding, so he attempts to punish himself. (This scene also got a fair bit of awards play, but lacked context. Or perhaps that was just me? I didn’t really get what was going on until i saw it in the film proper.) That’s a key part of what’s going on with his character, I think: he hasn’t just been trying to escape what happened, he’s also punishing himself. Other people aren’t always so understanding — some do judge him; one person quietly refuses to employ him, presumably because of what happened — but no one judges him as harshly as he judges himself.

The Scene

An aspect I don’t recall being remarked upon much was the cinematography, but I thought it was a surprisingly good-looking film. DP Jody Lee Lipes’ work here isn’t flashy, maintaining the understated and naturalistic tone of the entire movie, but it’s very crisp, befitting both the freezing cold weather and raw emotions. On the other hand, if I had one criticism to level it might be that the film’s too long. Its events and emotions unfold at a measured pace, which is fine, but some of what we see is less necessary than the film seems to think it is (for one example, the opening sequence, where we watch Lee as he does various day-to-day janitorial jobs, feels like it goes on for ages and contributes little).

But I’m nitpicking at this point, really. Manchester by the Sea derives itself from such everyday moments, accumulating them into a subtle, realistic, quietly powerful character portrait.

5 out of 5

Good Will Hunting (1997)

2014 #125
Gus Van Sant | 126 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Will HuntingI’d say Good Will Hunting is famous for two things: one, being written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were young actors after some good roles; and two, Robin Williams’ Oscar-winning supporting actor performance. Such is the power of these two facts that I didn’t even know what it was about until I actually watched it.

Damon is the titular Will Hunting, a 20-year-old from South Boston who works as a janitor at the prestigious MIT, hangs out with his friends (who include Ben Affleck) and sometimes gets into fights for no good reason. He’s also an undiscovered genius, adept at all kinds of maths and philosophy, to a “beating students in arguments in bars” level. Undiscovered, that is, until an MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgård — didn’t even know he was in it) puts a maths problem on a blackboard for his super-intelligent students to solve over the next year, and Will solves it over night.

Williams enters the equation as a therapist, who Will is legally required to meet with. Their initially antagonistic relationship evolves, as the very troubled young man comes to deal with his issues. For all its appearances as a movie about an uncommon maths prodigy, then, Good Will Hunting is really about a messed-up young man trying to deal with his issues — not least intimacy problems that threaten to ruin his relationship with MIT student Skylar (Minnie Driver).

Williams and DamonThe film is perhaps most enjoyable as an acting showcase. Damon and Williams have numerous incredible scenes together; encounters that feel like genuine slowly-evolving therapy, rather than the simplistic and implausible series of repeated revelations and breakthroughs that such treatment is often reduced to on screen. They run the emotional gamut, too, being not just instances of soul-searching but also moments of wider insight, or intense humour — that’s what you get when you have Robin Williams at your disposal, of course. His Oscar is well earnt.

There’s also the relationship between Williams and Skarsgård, college roommates who have fallen out of touch but are now almost the angel and devil atop Will’s shoulders — and, of course, each believes they’re the angel. That’s to simplify it, though, as their relationship is not so straightforwardly antagonistic. These are friends, but friends with a very different view of what’s best for their young charge.

In that role, Damon is equally excellent. It’s rarely a showy part, instead full of understated feelings, buried beneath the surface but keenly felt. Here is a kid with great potential and hope, but who won’t act on any of it for fear of failure — not that he’d admit that, even to himself. Not initially, anyway. It’s a narrative that strikes me as having a great deal of truth about intelligent kids from impoverished backgrounds, brought into sharp relief by this one being not just intelligent but a genuine world-class genius. It’s also affectingly felt through his relationship with Driver, for once appealingly likeable rather than faintly irritating (is that just me?) Driver and DamonTheir promising relationship suffers through inexperience and, to be frank, unwarranted daftness, lending it a melancholic air (or is that just me again?)

Of the leads, it’s Ben Affleck who has the least to show off with — strange, considering he co-wrote it as a chance for some work. That’s not to say he has nothing to contribute, but he’s very much a supporting role — I’ve arrived at him fifth because that’s essentially where he sits in the pecking order of significance. More memorable is his younger brother, Casey, playing another of Will’s friends. Apparently Affleck the Younger frequently improvised lines on set, and there are some great brotherly looks that seem to say, “what the hell are you doing to my screenplay?!”

Affleck the Elder is afforded at least one moment of Proper Acting, though. At one point he tells Will about the best part of his day: when he arrives at Will’s house to pick him up, the ten seconds where he walks up to the door, and there’s the possibility that his friend — who he knows is a genius but hasn’t acted on his potential — has just gone, without word; left for a better life. As the viewer, we know instantly how this is going to pay off later, so when the moment does come (spoiler, sorry), we know what to expect: Affleck will walk up to the door, he’ll knock, there’ll be no answer, he’ll grin like a loon. Except that’s not what happens: Affleck does walk up to the door, he does knock, there is no answer… so he knocks again. Frustrated, he knocks more. He peers through the glass. Now he begins to realise — Will’s gone. Then there’s a long, unbroken shot of his face, as he considers and contemplates. It’s not confused, exactly, but he’s seemingly unsure what to make of it. Affleck and beerThen, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a slight wry grin curls his mouth. Yes, Will has actually done it; and yes, it is what he wanted. It’s all good. Only then does he turn around, and simply announce to his waiting friends that Will isn’t there. It’s a pretty subtle moment, massively over-explained here, but it’s so much more realistic a reaction than the almost-clichéd one we’re expecting to see. In a film full of incredible, powerful performances, speeches and moments, it’s one that stood out to me.

I guess we should also thank director Gus Van Sant for that. This is the man who remade Psycho shot-for-shot “just because”, and made the interminably dull Elephant too. Here, his Artistic predilections are reigned in to just the odd moment — some shots of the friends driving around Boston staring out the car window, that kind of thing. Most of the time, he unfussily shoots the actors doing their thing. For my money, that makes this far and away his most successful movie (that I’ve seen, anyhow).

Apparently some people label Good Will Hunting predictable or implausible, with associated implications of it being twee and sugary. I don’t really think it’s any of those things. Maybe a little, but no more than so many other movies — the vast majority of stories are “predictable” because we all know how narrative works nowadays, for example. There are many worse examples than this.

Damon and mathsBesides, it’s the characters and the performances that shine. It’s no surprise that a pair of actors wrote an “actors’ movie”, but it is an achievement that they wrote one that displays genuine people and genuine emotions, rather than just showy performances. Credit to an exceptional cast — and, this once, an exceptional director — for bringing that so beautifully to life.

5 out of 5

Good Will Hunting is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm. It’s followed by Good Morning, Vietnam, which I’ll review tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

2013 #56
Andrew Dominik | 160 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Canada & UK / English | 15 / R

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordSeptember 1881: after admiring their leader for years through cheap magazine stories, 19-year-old Robert Ford manages to hook up with the James Gang. Little does he suspect that, just seven months later, he will be responsible for the murder of his idol, Jesse James. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the title.)

Ultimately released in 2007, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford found itself going head-to-head in the awards season with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. The accepted narrative of that time is about the two-horse-race between the latter two, though Jesse James fits with them in some kind of thematic and stylistic triumvirate: they’re all products of what I’d call “American mainstream art house” cinema; all classifiable as Westerns, though none in a strictly traditional sense; all more concerned with their characters and their lives than the machinations of the plot. In the end, No Country garnered most of the awards, There Will Be Blood seems to have settled in as a critical darling, but, for my money, this purest Western of the three is by far the best.

I’m not going to waste much time making direct comparisons between the three films. I suspect there’s an article in that, if someone hasn’t written it already, but it’s not one I have much interest in penning: I don’t think I’ve made much secret of my distaste for the Coen and Anderson efforts in this little threesome, both being films I never really engaged with and certainly didn’t enjoy (in fairness, I should give Blood a second shot, but even the idea of sitting through No Country again makes me shudder). The Assassination of Jesse James, however, is a film I both engaged with and enjoyed greatly.

The coward Robert FordLet’s be clear, though: this is not a film for everyone. This is not an action movie set in the Wild West, which might be what’s expected from a Hollywood studio movie starring Brad Pitt. Apparently director Andrew Dominik intended to make a film with a Terence Malick vibe, so I read after viewing, which chimed with me because “Malick-esque” was one of my foremost thoughts during viewing. This is a slowly-paced two-hours-and-forty-minutes, with more shots of crops blowing gently in the breeze or riders approaching gradually over distant hills as there are flashes of violence. Despite what the studio wanted, this is not a fast-paced action Western, it’s a considered, sometimes meditative, exploration of character and theme.

The character explored is not particularly Jesse James, but Robert Ford. As the latter, Casey Affleck was largely put forward for Supporting Actor awards, which does him a disservice — the film is largely told from Ford’s perspective, and though there are asides where it follows James or other members of the gang, it begins with Ford’s arrival and ends with his departure from this world. Affleck is superb in a quiet but nuanced performance, which I would say ranges wildly without ever appearing to change. At times he is cocky and self-sure, at others cowardly and defensive, often creepy and occasionally likeable, sometimes both worldly and naïve, a perpetual wannabe who even when he achieves something is still poorly viewed. You might think the title is stating its position on him, but it really isn’t — it’s a position to be considered, a point of contrast to the man’s motives and actions; a statement that is in fact a question.

Conversely, Pitt’s Jesse James is closer to a supporting role. We see him primarily through the eyes of others; he is distant, unknowable, his moods and actions unpredictable thanks to years of law-dodging that’s led to a paranoia about his own men — not all of it misplaced. Best Supporting ActorJesse’s mood swings are more obvious than Ford’s, but Pitt makes them no less unlikely. At times charming and a clear leader, at others he is a genuinely tense, frightening presence, without ever needing to resort to the grandstanding horror-movie grotesques offered by (Oscar winners) Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem in There Will Be Blood and No Country respectively.

Though there are other memorable and striking performances — particularly from Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, and a pre-fame Jeremy Renner; plus a precise, perfectly-pitched, occasional voiceover narration from Hugh Ross (who doesn’t have many credits to his name but surely deserves some more now) — the third lead is Roger Deakins and his stunning cinematography. There are many clichés to use for good-looking films, and the vast majority of the time they are trotted out as what they are and not really meant. Jesse James, however, is one most could be applied to with total accuracy. For example, there are very few — if any — films where you could genuinely take any frame and hang it as a perfect photograph; but if there is one where you could, this is it.

Deakins has reportedly said that “the arrival of the train in darkness is one of the high watermarks of his career”, and he’s right to think that. It’s a glorious sequence, made up of several shots where every one is perfectly composed and lit to create a remarkable ambience and beauty, as well as telling the story, which in this instance involves as much creation of suspense as eliciting pure artistic appreciation. Deakins did take home a few awards for his work here, but not the Oscar. I can’t remember which film did win and, frankly, I don’t care, because whichever it was this outclasses it by miles.

The arrival of the train in darknessThis must also be thanks in part to director Andrew Dominik. Every last shot feels precisely chosen and paced. Of course, every shot in every film has been chosen and placed where it is, but the amount of thought that’s gone into that might vary. Jesse James somehow carries extra weight in this department, with no frame in its not-inconsiderable running time wasted on an unnecessary angle or take that’s allowed to run even a second too long. Somewhat famously, there was a lot of wrangling over the film’s final cut (delaying its release by a year or more), with the aforementioned debate between something faster and something even slower: a four-hour version screened at the Venice Film Festival, to a strong reception. Sadly, the intervening years haven’t seen that cut, or any of its parts, resurface (to my knowledge). That’s an hour and twenty minutes of material and I’d love to know what’s in them.

One thing in there, I’d wager, would be the performances of Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel. Both their characters have a tiny presence in the finished product, and while that may be fine for the overall story (some would criticise how much female characters are sidelined, but that’s another debate), casting two moderately major actresses creates a disjunct with the size of their roles. I was going to say this is one of the film’s few flaws, but it’s debatable if it even qualifies as that: if they’d cast less recognisable faces, their lack of presence would pass by unnoticed.

The other thread I mentioned, seven paragraphs ago, was “theme”. The film has a lot of concurrent aspects one might consider — “loyalty” being a major one, for instance — but I think the biggest is “celebrity”. Not in the modern sense, though I’m sure there are analogies for those that wish. To pick up on what I was saying before: Ford is the main character, and the main thing he wants, even if he doesn’t realise it, is fame. He joins the James Gang because he’s enamoured with the adventurous tales he’s read; We can't go on together with suspicious mindsbecause he’s obsessed with the notoriety of Jesse. Later, once the titular deed is done, he becomes an actor (not without talent, as the narration informs us) and re-performs the act that made him famous hundreds of times. It’s his legacy, however, to not be as well-remembered as his victim; to not be as well-liked, even; not even close. There’s something there about the pursuit of fame for its own sake, if nothing else.

It’s difficult to call any film “perfect”. Certainly, there would be plenty of viewers who would consider The Assassination of Jesse James to be an overlong bore. Each to their own, and I do have sympathy with such perspectives because there are acclaimed films that I’ve certainly found to be both overlong and boring. Not this one, though. From the constant beauty of Deakins’ cinematography, to the accomplished performances, to the insightful and considered story (not to mention that it’s been cited as the most historically accurate version of events yet filmed), there are endless delights here. As time wears on and awards victors fade, it deserves to elbow its way back into the debate for the best film of the ’00s.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is on ITV4 tonight at 10pm. It’s screening again tomorrow at 11pm.

It placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.