Finally, two new films to shout about.

Manchester by the Sea.

Man­ches­ter by the Sea.

In her reveal­ing pro­file of Ken­neth Lon­er­gan in the New York­er here, Rebec­ca Mead charts the tra­vails that Lon­er­gan went through with his sec­ond fea­ture Mar­garet. Not with­stand­ing her entire­ly sym­pa­thet­ic por­trait, one of the fas­ci­nat­ing insights to emerge is that, at least to some degree, those wounds were par­tial­ly self-inflicted.

Cer­tain­ly his debut You Can Count On Me was one of the most impres­sive films to come out of Amer­i­ca in the last cou­ple of decades. And not with­stand­ing the wran­gling over its length, his fol­low up Mar­garet, reviewed ear­li­er here, was if any­thing an improve­ment on that debut. But when it came to deliv­er­ing that con­tentious final cut of Mar­garet, he seems to have bur­rowed him­self ever deep­er into a hole large­ly if trag­i­cal­ly of his own making.

The Brilliant You Can Count on Me.

The bril­liant You Can Count on Me.

There’s evi­dent­ly a stub­born­ness and a prick­ly recal­ci­trance to his char­ac­ter that’s qui­et­ly at war with his fiery intel­li­gence and the pro­found sense of empa­thy that he has for oth­er peo­ple and, there­fore, with the char­ac­ters that he ends up cre­at­ing on the page. It’s in this sense that his third film, Man­ches­ter by the Sea is so clear­ly an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal one. It’s not so much the sto­ry that he tells that is so man­i­fest­ly his, rather it is the mood cre­at­ed that so per­fect­ly cap­tures that inner tension.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, who has bot­tled up what­ev­er it was that hap­pened to him in his past so tight­ly he’s become immune to life itself. When a trag­ic event sends him back home to the Man­ches­ter of the title, he has no choice oth­er than to face up to his past.

What Lon­er­gan does so bril­liant­ly is to stay with his char­ac­ters as they go about the mun­dane, day to day chores that have to be gone through when­ev­er any of us have to deal with a trag­ic event. What makes this all the more excru­ci­at­ing is that of all the peo­ple who have to deal with those kind of things, Lee is the least capa­ble, and the most in need of help. Which is the one thing he’s inca­pable of ask­ing for.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck, who’s a rev­e­la­tion, and the excel­lent Lucas Hedges in Man­ches­ter by the Sea.

It would be mis­lead­ing to pre­tend that, at times, this were not a pro­found­ly depress­ing film. But its bril­liance lies pre­cise­ly in its refusal to turn what seems like an impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion around and to tie up all the var­i­ous nar­ra­tive strands. In life as we live it, some things are impos­si­ble to move beyond. And those sto­ries don’t end, they rum­ble on for the rest of our lives.

Lov­ing is the sixth fea­ture from Jeff Nichols and after the atmos­pher­ic Take Shel­ter (2011) and Mud (2012), he made the dis­ap­point­ing­ly con­ven­tion­al Mid­night Spe­cial. The lat­ter seemed to strain for the sort of Spiel­ber­gian grandeur that Hol­ly­wood and its accoun­tants are so in awe of. This film, hap­pi­ly, would appear to a con­scious effort to pro­duce an anti­dote to that sort of emo­tion­al incontinence.

Jeff Nicholas Loving.

Jeff Nichol’s Lov­ing.

As a based-on-a-true-sto­ry tale of a white man’s insis­tence on mar­ry­ing the black girl of his dreams in the 1950s, in the south­ern state of Vir­ginia, it’s the sort of sto­ry that could have been ruined had it been sad­dled with the tra­di­tion­al Hol­ly­wood treat­ment. In con­trast, Nichols is con­scious­ly restrained through­out, and he refus­es to punc­tu­ate every emo­tion­al expres­sion with a musi­cal out­burst, qui­et­ly let­ting the facts speak for themselves.

And, as with Man­ches­ter by the Sea, he too takes his cue from clas­si­cal Greek dra­ma, so that most of the piv­otal action hap­pens off stage, includ­ing even the cli­mat­ic court scene when the laws pro­hibit­ing inter­ra­cial mar­riage are final­ly overturned.

Ruth Nega in Loving.

Ruth Neg­ga, who gives a pow­er­ful per­for­mance in Lov­ing.

Instead of which, he focus­es on the reac­tions of the pro­tag­o­nists to the events that have unfold­ed off screen. And there can be few scenes more mov­ing than when Ruth Neg­ga gets the phone call inform­ing her that, some­where in the vast bureau­cra­cy of the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment, some­one was final­ly respond­ing to her many let­ters plead­ing des­per­ate­ly for help.

Some have com­plained that this dis­tanced view ren­ders the film cool or even cold. But as Manohla Dar­gis writes in her excel­lent New York Times review here, it’s pre­cise­ly this qui­et dis­tance that gives the film its emo­tion­al punch. You can see the trail­er to Lov­ing here, and the trail­er to Man­ches­ter by the Sea here.

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