This movie does not qualify as being either good or bad, it’s neither one or the other. It is simply unenjoyable. Which isn’t a weakness, but it’s strength. This is definitely not La La Land, impossible to dislike (did you hear me? IMPOSSIBLE). Neither is it Moonlight, the ultimate catharsis for the heart that will spin you around and drop you feeling sick about humanity on the pavement outside of the cinema. This is (the word that is destined to be used in every review of this movie) in every sense of the term: depressing.  No, not depressing in the way that most critics see it, no it’s the condition that Americans are living in that is depressing. This is not a “linguini” movie, it’s lauded by critics with who knows how many awards under its belt, so what’s it doing on this blog? Well, I believe that it deserves to be reassessed. On one hand it is most certainly over- rated, on the other it’s message is completely misunderstood (in my humble opinion). Warning: major spoilers ahead, no really, big spoilers, don’t tell yourself “oh, it’s fine, I don’t care about spoilers”, it’s part of the experience of the movie, so don’t ruin it for yourself. You were warned.

First, let’s start with few of the flaws of this movie: this is purely subjective, but I found the camera work to be uninteresting. Please take on to account that my favourite directors when it comes to camera work are Fellini and Almodovar, everything is in place and everything is aesthetically pleasing. Which is not say that I don’t like social realism cinema, but Lonergan is no Ken Loach. The images in Loach’s films stay with you, the camera movements are used to enhance the narrative. Here, I just shrugged. Now, of course, it’s not the films strong point and neither is the music. Now don’t get me wrong I love classical music but here it’s overbearing, distracting and overused, furthermore would these characters even listen to that type of music? I don’t think so. Worst of all, it even ruins one of the most fundamental scenes, the burning of his home with Albinoni’s Adagio in g minor, a decision Lonergan apparently was originally not going to do, putting it as a temporary track, until finally keeping it. It made this scene irritating instead of tragic. It’s so blatantly manipulative, that it fails to be engaging. Instead of weeping I sat there waiting for it to be over, wanting to shout “Would you tone down the music! I’m trying to read Affleck’s face here!”.

I can forgive all these things, I never thought this would be an aesthetically pleasing film, what I can’t forgive is the script. It was the reason why I went to watch this movie in the first place, but even here I found myself to be disappointed. I was anticipating a well written script after hearing so many good things about it, and considering Lonergan is a playwright, could you blame me for having high expectation? I’m not saying it’s bad, I just sat there wondering, “so?” Lee’s ex-wife Randi, only knows two words to express herself, words that clearly demonstrate anger, but this anger is never explained (another problem, we never learn more about this character that could have potentially been very interesting, but is reduced to the role of the ex-wife). They live in a safe and decent area, honestly nothing miserable, why does she have to swear like a fishmonger? (get it they’re by the sea) To be fair, there are little details to enjoy beneath the vulgarity of their tongue, revealed unconsciously by the characters, most notably in the scene in the car with Patrick.  Lee refuses to put the heat on, and if you know the tragedy ,you know why he has such a problem with “turning the heat on”. It was a brief moment but extremely effective.

My last point is a bit contrary to popular opinion: Cassey Affleck is simply not that good. I’m sorry but there is no nuance whatsoever in that performance, he has one expression, I just simply didn’t believe and all I saw was the younger Affleck acting. I was actually more impressed with Lucas Hedges’, every time he appeared on screen I sighed in relief. The kid’s reaction to his father’s death puzzled me, after seeing his corps he returns home and orders pizza to later have sex with a (obnoxious) girl.  Not to mention that his obsession to sleep with these girls is a way to satisfy the maternal absence in his life. Freudian much, ‘amma right’? However, the main issue is that I didn’t see a difference between Lee’s character before and after his tragedy. It doesn’t mean he drank and took cocaine that he was happy. People don’t take cocaine because they’re happy, they take it because they’re depressed (someone put that on a T-shirt). Why is he depressed? Why does he have to force himself with substance abuse to be happy? Now maybe Lonergan didn’t want there to be a difference, maybe the real difference is that before he wasn’t aware that he was miserable, and his tragedy (and how he was at the origin of it) woke him up, made him realise the condition in which he was living in and of all Americans.

The fact that what he committed is taken lightly by the police is horrifying. “It happens all the time”. Why is it that this type of behaviour is considered ordinary? The problem with the movie, it’s main problem, is the fact that it treats Lee’s character as though he were acting abnormally. The message I received from the first (very un-even) ten minutes was that we must be concerned that he isn’t jumping on every crazy woman hitting on him. What does Lonergan want to tell us? The movie seems confused in what it was trying to tell us but here is what I took away from it:

Lee is the only lucid one around him, he committed something unforgivable and horrific, and his “mal-étre” is not his alone but that of all Americans. He discovers that they are all pretending to be happy because they are essentially not. Why? They carry a deep internal guilt of having taken away the land from the native Americans. Unintentionally burning down his house is possibly a metaphor for the colonist burning down the “house” i.e. the land, of the Indians. A burning house in the woods by the sea sounds a bit like a re-enactment of the colonist arriving and raping America. A stretch? Let me demonstrate:

First, you’re thinking where’s the reference? Where are the Indians? Exactly, where are they? Is their absence the void around them, the emptiness in their lives? Because there is this emptiness, this futility, is it me or aren’t they SO DAMN SLOW? They don’t do anything! Their passivity drove me crazy. When Lee tells Randi that “there’s nothing there”, exactly no more emotion, no more life. The colonist stole the land, the original sin of this nation, “Thou shalt not steal”, and now their ancestors are condemned…to boredom. Second of all, this land does not want them (‘them’ being the white colonist’s ancestors), brought to light by the fact that it won’t even bury the brother’s body in the ground. Instead, while waiting for spring they must freeze it, like their food.  Not only does it not want them, they don’t know what to do it with it. After having purged the land from the native Americans , they find themselves bored. They don’t take advantage of it and eat garbage instead: pizza and artificial sauce. When Patrick returns to see his mother, it is a form of thanksgiving, but they’re not eating turkey, they’re eating meatloaf. That’s just depressing, meatloaf is not only gross but miserable, sorry meatloaf lovers but it just is. Not to mention the single handily greatest scene in the entire movie, where Patrick has a breakdown staring at frozen chicken, i.e. his father in his mind who is being frozen until spring. This scene demonstrates that Americans have become essentially their food, you are what you eat, but also that this is  their life, to be disposed, detached from “their” land if it is theirs at all. An artificial death instead of returning to nature, to be kept at cold in metallic boxes. To sum up: the majority of Americans have an issue with food.

“I want to run, I want to run” screeches the girl. And so do we, from the cinema. What Lonergan achieved was to recreate the claustrophobia and the suffocation of Massachusetts. I would know, I spent a summer there at my grandmother’s, and I found the same slowness, the same mushiness, the same self-contentment in the banal, captured perfectly in this movie. The screen held my breath in discomfort, this is done most successfully in the car, American symbol of freedom, is as dreary as a coffin. The only place that both the characters and the audience feel free and at home is at sea. The camera feels lighter, it sweeps above the waves and we feel like we can finally breath. A notable scene is when Lee breaks his window screen looking out at the sea. It’s pretty self-explanatory, you can see a shot of it above. The movie comes full circle at sea. It starts by Lee asking his nephew on their boat, who he would rather stay with on an island, him or his father and the movie ends with these two, Lee and Patrick on the same boat. The island is not only a metaphor for the island of isolation and grief that they will find themselves in but also a literal island: that of England and Ireland, the land of their ancestors, where they belong. They do not belong in America therefore they feel at home at sea. The title says it all. When we say Manchester we most likely think of England first before the United States, that is the paradox. Foreigners by the sea, clueless on the reason of their unhappiness, who long for an “island” they do not know. I see the ending as a suicide for both characters, there is no horizon, there is no hope for either one of them. No way back to England, no way back for him to return to his “happy” life. I can also prove this point with a scene earlier in the movie, when Lee listens to an old man telling him  how he once had a father who went out to sea and never returned. Why would Lonergan add this scene if it weren’t to tell us that Lee won’t return either.

I’m not saying my interpretation is the right way to see it. I don’t know if Lonergan had any of this in mind while making it or if it came out of him unconsciously. I find its two main issues are its music and it’s unclear message, in particular with Lee’s character, but in  no way is it a “masterpiece” or a heart-breaking movie. I’m even more perplexed by how lauded it is. One French critic even said that Patrick was “smart”, no, seriously, I’m not kidding, that kid’s a jerk (with a capacity to be sometimes decent like most humans can be). I simply came to the conclusion that the critics related to that life, but I don’t think that they understood (the majority, from what I read) that all Americans are miserable, they just pretend not to be. I’m not judging saying that all Americans as individuals are unhappy, but this culture shares this collective guilt, this “mal-étre”, it’s just a thing that I noticed about people in that area from experience, brought to light by this movie. This movie reveals this guilt that Lee alone is aware, he is the walking-dead, he can no longer pretend to be happy like they all do. Write below if you agree, disagree, don’t care etc. Thank you for reading.

L.L. Wooden