Sunday, December 4, 2016

films in grief

Grief can be a gauzy, center-less thing and also a distinct and crisp thing with a hot core. Two notable films of the year reflect characters in stages of grief. One character's loss is known only to a small town, the other's is known to the world. At times, they seem to be in control with a sane, buttoned-up appearance and at another time, swinging at air--out-of-control. To paraphrase one of their quotes: where is the line between reality and performance?

Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea and Pablo Larraín's Jackie delve into characters in the aftermath of tragedy. Larraín's film brings us intimately to Jackie Kennedy in the hours and days after her husband's assassination. We follow her closely in the closed door rooms of the White House and on the plane to and from Dallas. The film reels in unsteadiness, in stultifying, claustrophobic-ness, unusual narrative-cutting with Mica Levi's see-sawing strings adding to the discomfort of these large, immaculate, heavily-curtained rooms, packed cars and planes. As the Zapruder film has forever imprinted in American memory, there can be danger in open air as well. So the movie doesn't let up much when we go outdoors--feeling the uneasiness of Jackie at Arlington Cemetery trudging mud in kitten heels, around D.C. gardens with terse exchanges with a priest, and of course the funeral procession itself, an event of much mind-changing and deep concern (placards of Lincoln's own procession figure in a fascinating moment).

Natalie Portman acts up a storm in Jackie and it's an intriguing performance to watch in all its minute details. As Jackie never quite seemed comfortable on-camera (we flashback to her carefully constructed, televised White House tour), Portman's acting is visible as well, her voice practiced and rehearsed with a troubled sheen. As someone in shock, there is also immense responsibility on her character as she is determined to preserve her husband's legacy.

Portman is let down a bit by Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, who is bizarrely accent-less and never really feels like Bobby except for his styled coif of hair. Perhaps the intention was to make Portman stand out in her gloom. Greta Gerwig is a warm presence as Jackie's secretary Nancy Tuckerman and is quite good in a glimmer of a period role that we aren't used to seeing her in. The costuming, by Madeline Fontaine, is gorgeous eye-candy; it's hard not to be seduced by the attire and the set design (even though filmed upon a soundstage, it really does feel you are within the White House confines) something of which Jackie herself was conscious and reverent of in preserving the history and aesthetics of her home. Like the film itself, a coda involving dozens of mannequins resembling Jackie and her simple but beautiful style as she departs the White House, insinuates the subsequent surface commercialism of her image and of her sorrow.

I wasn't enamored with Larraín's conceit of Theodore White's (played competently but blandly by Billy Crudup) Life interview at Jackie's home in Hyannis Port as a way of unfolding the story. Even though the refrains revealed a pithy side of Jackie's character in certain moments, the interview often felt redundant and repetitive. The flashbacks were much more deftly and intricately handled. In the immediacy of the assassination, events move so swiftly there isn't a moment to breathe, as we watch the new President being sworn in on the plane and Jackie walking about in a shocked daze in her blood-stained dress, everyone around her looking fearful and bewildered, unwilling to console her or unsure how to.

The film also has another subtext in its release year, when privacy continues to erode and in the aftermath of an obliterating election for Democrats. The fussy classiness of Jackie and the dashing, golden fable of "Camelot" (referenced many times) seems obscure now and so far away as Americans are about to hand over the White House to a crass and odious man who has publicly denigrated entire swaths of constituents for decades. Even if Jackie doesn't quite connect, its portrayal of grief is in the manifestation of the film's own discomfort and haziness, as another time in history is buried and reconstructed in knowing artifice once again. ***

Events move much more slowly in Lonergan's painterly character study Manchester by the Sea, the sort of once-in-a-decade movie that makes a harrowing emotional impact. Lee (Casey Affleck) goes back to his seaside Massachusetts hometown after his brother dies to help with his brother's son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Returning there and seeing his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) stirs up a painful past--a particularly horrific event in their lives on an icy night comes in lieu of a flashback sequence that is masterfully-directed--with a thundering, funereal Messiah soundtrack and deft editing (by the underrated Jennifer Lame)--but also raw in its realism. As Jackie sometimes does, the way Patrick deals with his loss is by means of distraction. It's uniquely realized and Hedges is particularly good with embodying the complexities of his character: a panic attack with slippery frozen foods conjures physical comedy, wryness and despair. His flat-footed, sophomoric trysts with girls adds some much-needed levity to the movie, even if they are the more generic moments of the picture. With symbolic references to thawing, the film shows how Lee's long inner suffering has chilled him to the point where he's unable to small-talk or connect with others in a deep way. And as many around Jackie seemed mystified by how to help or deal with her, those around Lee are confounded as well.

Affleck is astonishing. I was moved tremendously by his quiet portrayal of this laconic, pent-up man. As in Margaret, Lonergan, who also scripted, is in no hurry: he lingers on his characters and their painful, awkward situations in the way the best television dramas of today have the time to do. And yet, it's in the medium of film that Manchester's way of winding down to a conclusion feels so particularly affecting--Lee reaches out and says a simple statement that you know that it took a lot for him to say.

Williams provides a tearful scene in a small but pivotal appearance. As we also see Jackie, we also see her Randi as two very different people at different points of her life with a brazen New England accent. Even if Williams makes some transparent actorly decisions, knowing that she herself is someone who has experienced the loss of a husband at a young age, I couldn't help but be struck by an agonizing monologue where she attempts to connect with and apologize to her ex-husband.

Manchester by the Sea reminded me of Robert Redford's polished Ordinary People in its cinematic depiction of how people carry suffering in starkly different ways. Every so often a film can knock the wind out of you, which happened here on a, coincidentally, very windy day in New York. I wouldn't call that a pleasant experience but there is something rare and indescribably exciting when a movie has the capability of doing it. ****

-Jeffery Berg

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