This is a hard film to review and it’s taken me some time to figure out how to write this. It was nominated for loads of awards and Casey Affleck received best actor at the Oscars, Golden Globes and Baftas. The screenplay was also highly praised, yet it was not an obvious prize winner; yet the story is so downbeat, so… I dare to use the word normal, but it is completely lacking in the big set pieces we usually associate with such praise.
And yet at its heart is a truly huge event, one that every parent fears: the loss of their children. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler accidentally sets fire to his home after a night of alcohol and drugs with his friends. But we are not told this until well into the film.
We see him as a janitor, clearing snow, unblocking toilets, an everyman trying to survive. There are moments of humour; as he’s washing his hands he hears a tenant talking on the phone about how she fancies him. She asks if she can give him a tip, he asks, do you mean some advice? This is clever stuff, the ordinary daily exchanges, yet loaded with significances. He is solitary, but not a loner.
Yet he picks fights in bars for no reason. He clearly has problems. But it is not until he returns home to Manchester to deal with his brother’s death that his backstory emerges.
The tragedy of his family house fire is shown without hysteria. Rescue workers walking slowly from the ashen remains bearing tiny body bags says more than enough.
Lee is surprised to be given guardianship of his nephew, and their relationship is difficult. Lee is in no fit shape to deal with a grieving teenager. His stay in the town is prolonged, we are able to see what he left behind, and realise he has a reputation – people keep their distance, though it is unclear whether they respect his pain or fear him.
What strikes me is how very small town American this film is – well, obviously, as it is set there. But in Britain there would be lots of intervention – police, social services, all sorts. But there is no talk of Lee’s grief at the loss of his children, no talk of doctors, of counselling, of medication. He does not go to church, and he is surrounded by people who are also grieving, they all have to find their own way of dealing with pain, of surviving.
What we see is a happy family man who becomes isolated and occasionally violent. We see people around him trying to help but not knowing how. They know he is a good man, and even if he wasn’t, he is one of theirs and if he is in pain, so are they.
This seems an odd link, but it reminds me in some ways of one of my favourite films, Lars and the Real Girl in which Ryan Gosling’s painfully shy character finds a bizarre way to deal with his shyness. This is a comedy, but it also shows how communities deal with problems, often by standing back, by allowing people to heal themselves but being watchful in case they stumble.
Again, this may seem an odd parallel, but when I started hiking, I often got scared going down hills. Loaded with a heavy pack on uneven paths, I sometimes had to stop, frozen by fear of falling. Some guys in the group would pause at the top of any slopes, offering to help me all the way down. I appreciated this, but I preferred how a friend behaved. He would walk behind me, only offering his hand when I really needed it. With him, I learned to be a better hiker, I learned how to deal with fear rather than to become dependent on fitter, stronger people.
This is a film that shows us much about the characters, but does not explain, or judge. We see and can relate to their pain and their struggles, but we are not told how to react. This is where the film’s genius lies. It is subtle, brilliantly empathic story telling about dealing with grief and loss, and the problems that arise in families.
It is great to see such a great piece of storytelling win so many awards, especially for Affleck. Has he ever made a bad film?