Tag Archive: Kenneth Lonergan


[Author’s Note: This post contains significant spoilers for Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 film, Manchester by the Sea. If you don’t want some of the film’s major reveals spoiled, you might want to avoid reading this until you’ve seen the film.]

I don’t  believe in God, but I do believe in Hell. Hell doesn’t have to be Satan inflicting infinite pain for eternity. Hell can be something as simple as you and everyone you love suffering… suffering and not having any answers for why you hurt or any solutions to make the misery go away. Manchester by the Sea‘s Lee Chandler isn’t just trapped in his own private Hell. His self-immolation is burning everyone around him.

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(Quick aside before I actually start the review. The only reason that You Can Count on Me [the last film to get the elusive score of A+ on this blog] jettisoned to the top of my Netflix queue a month or so ago was that I suddenly saw a flare-up of internet news about the latest film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret. Author Bret Easton Ellis said it was his favorite movie of 2011, and reviews had been top-notch across the board [for those rare people who saw the film when it was originally released]. Margaret‘s production process will likely be one of the most legendary in the industry as principal photography ended in 2007, and Lonergan spent the last five years mired in development hell as he fought with the studios about how to edit the film. It was worth the wait because Lonergan now joins Federico Fellini as the only director to have two films get an “A+” on my blog and the only director to have all of his films get this rare score. He is a truly underappreciated master.)

The defining trait of writer/director/playwright Kenneth Lonergan is his gift to ensure that no scene in any of his works plays out the way Hollywood conventions expects it to. When, in You Can Count on Me, Mark Ruffalo’s drunken Terry stumbled into his nephew’s (Kieran Culkin) bedroom and began insulting the boy’s father, no lessons were learned. A family didn’t come closer together. A precocious 11  year old didn’t teach grown-ups about the beauty of life. Instead Kenneth Lonergan delivered family. He delivered it without varnish, embellishment, or bullshit. There was a logic to the actions of Terry and Samantha Prescott, but with such complexity of character and a devotion to the chaos and impertinence of real life, you were never quite sure what they were going to do next. The only thing you knew was that Lonergan was going to provide an insight into the truth of familial relationships with more veracity than any writer before (or since).

You Can Count on Me was one of those rare films that I could describe as being practically perfect. Lonergan’s focus was razor sharp, and the dialogue remains some of the most realistic of any film I’ve ever watched. His follow-up, last year’s Margaret, widens Lonergan’s scope as he tackles the sort of existential and philosophical questions that were previously the domain of Ingmar Bergman (guilt, responsibility, burgeoning sexuality, and mortality). Along with the film’s heavier themes than its predecessor, this cerebral approach could have robbed Lonergan of the quiet beauty that made You Can Count on Me so remarkable. Thanks to a profound refinement of his filmcraft as well as fierce lead performances and his typically prescient evaluation of human relations, Margaret may not hit its marks in every second of the film (as You Can Count on Me did), but it transforms itself into a far more grand and rewarding experience.

Here’s a moment that, handled by any other director, could have been a trite and sentimental trainwreck. A self-involved but highly intelligent seventeen year old girl (Anna Paquin) in NYC is desperately searching for a cowboy hat for a horse riding trip with her distant father on the west coast. When she sees one on a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), she tries to get his attention even though he’s driving away. As he half-flirts with her through the closed doors, the driver runs a red light and fatally mangles the body of a woman (Juno‘s Allison Janney). Immediately crippled by the guilt of the tragedy she inadvertently caused, the girl (Lisa Cohen) rushes to be by the woman’s side to comfort her as she dies. Far more panicked than the dying woman herself, Lisa finds herself soaked in the blood of the dying woman who confuses her with her daughter before she slides out of her mortal coil.

There are a million ways that scene could have played out that wouldn’t have rang with the same truth as Lonergan’s brutally honest approach. The dying woman could have made some profound speech as she died. The death itself could have been more noble or less messy. Lisa could have been a too effective comforter. The people (not doctors) futilely trying to save the woman’s life could have been to clean cut and efficient. Instead, it was the opposite of all of that. The woman rages against the senselessness of what has just happened to her. Lisa tries to help the woman and keep her calm, but mostly she just pisses her off even more and confuses her. The civilians trying to help try to place a tourniquet but they don’t get it right until it’s too late. Allison Janney’s in the film for all of five minutes but displays an economy of performance that put most of this year’s Oscar nominees to shame.

And the rest of the film spirals off from that tragedy. Wrecked with guilt about her role in what happened, Lisa originally lies to the police to protect the bus driver because she knows he didn’t do it on purpose. Still as her self-loathing and self-flagellation progresses, Lisa’s life implodes as her self-destructive behavior takes it toll on everyone around her, including her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron). Doing drugs, having promiscuous sex, and even beginning a relationship with one of her teachers (Matt Damon), Lisa scourges herself because she can’t face the fact that she was involved in the death of that woman. Even after she tells the police the truth about what happened (and they do nothing because he wasn’t criminally culpable), Lisa and the deceased’s closest friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) lead a quest to hold the bus driver and the bus company legally responsible for what occurred (although Lisa’s motives are perhaps less cavalier).

Had Margaret been released in 2007 or 2008 as originally intended (instead of being haunted by a mountain of legal problems and its massive editing fiasco), Anna Paquin would have likely won her second Academy Award. Fierce barely begins to cover it. Much like Natalie Portman in Black Swan, this is the sort of transformative and mature performance from a young actress that shoots them to superstardom. Since Paquin already has an Oscar (as well as a Golden Globe for True Blood), she’s already a celebrated and respected starlet, but nothing in her past could have prepared audiences for this. Paquin may have been 23 while shooting the film, but it may be safe to say that no one has captured the confusion and tragedy of youthful indiscretion this well since James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. If she doesn’t leave you heartbroken, you may not have a  heart to begin with.

You may initially be thrown off by the idiosyncratic vocabulary of Lisa. She can slip in and out of a reasonable discussion of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear into a volley of “like”s and “totally”s that would make a cast member of 90210. It never seems artificial or forced, just a little weird (though no other characters in the film speak like that). When the big moments arrive though, Paquin taps into something so deep that she nearly overwhelms the film. Whether it’s the nonchalant way she calls up a local boy (Kieran Culkin) to take her virginity or how she explodes on a police officer when he informs her they can’t prosecute the bus driver or breaks down when her dramatics finally isolate her from her one remaining friend, Paquin’s dramatic range is total and whether the scene calls for understated subtlety or explosive emotion, she dominates the film.

If it’s possible, J. Smith-Cameron was even better as Lisa’s beleaguered mother. In the pantheon of realistic and and tormented cinematic mothers, she is only equaled by Thirteen‘s Holly Hunter and Terms of Endearment‘s Shirley MacLaine. Rather than simply acting as an accessory to the emotional turmoil and ethical quandaries facing Lisa, she’s a full-fledged character in her own right. And J. Smith Cameron imbues Joan with all of the bitterness of having a daughter who doesn’t appreciate her, the loneliness of a grown woman in her 50s without love, and the fears of an actress on the cusp of success. Just like Lisa, Joan is an emotionally demanding role and like all great Kenneth Lonergan roles, it slowly reveals itself in front of the audience. No film in recent memory could have a scene where a mother angrily calls her daughter a cunt and you sympathize more with the mother.

You Can Count on Me was a brilliant example of the strengths of raw storytelling and fully realized characters, but the film often felt visually flat. As a playwright, it was understandable that Lonergan focused on the aspects of writing that he knew better than the visual possibilities of cinematic storytelling. Well, the intervening years since You Can Count on Me have obviously been kind to Mr. Lonergan because Margaret is a far more visually lush and ambitious film. Knowing when to let the actions speak more clearly than his dialogue ever could, Margaret incorporates multiple, long moments without any dialogue. Whether it’s Lisa’s guilt-ridden walk home after having her own narcissism thrown in her face or simply letting the camera linger on the subtleties of Joan’s face as she and Ramon take in a night at the opera, Lonergan found a visual muse as powerful as the forces shaping his dialogue.

Not since The Tree of Life have I watched an American film so committed to asking serious questions about our place in the world. Where The Tree of Life focused more on existential matters of love, death, and the relationships between fathers and sons, Margaret explores the ethical side of the philosophy coin. As Lisa begins her quest to bring the bus driver and the company to justice, she claims it’s because she wants the people who did wrong in this scenario to take responsibility for what they did, but honestly, she’s just as interested in finding a way to shift blame from herself. Is there even such a thing as justice? What are the motivations that our heroes and heroines have for trying to ruin the life of a man who killed a woman in an accident? In so far as Margaret gives you answers at all, none of them are easy, and they force you to confront some of the uglier sides of human nature.

(side note. I started this review several days ago but haven’t been able to finish it because I’ve been working and it’s freshman move-in weekend at WVU. I’ve been busy helping my sister. Very little time for writing). Although I’m not a fan of phrases like, “people don’t make movies like this anymore,” one could be tempted to use it to describe the works of Kenneth Lonergan. However, that wouldn’t even be appropriate because nobody makes movies like Kenneth Lonergan. The emotional pay-off of his films and the attention to detail and realism in his characters is simply peerless. Perhaps it’s because he has a film production schedule that rivals the deliberateness of Terrence Malick, but if this man were to release films more often (and he has plenty of time to make more films), he could gain a reputation among film connoisseurs as being one of the greatest screen-writers of the last 30 years. Here’s praying that the production issues that plagued Margaret don’t impede Lonergan from blessing audiences with more of his great works in the future.

Final Score: A+

(A quick aside before I get into the actual review (because I desperately want to try and sound more professional and like a real film critic on here but there are occasional points that I need to make that don’t fit into my actual reviews). A lot of my personal friends have made fun of me for the way that I compiled the list for this blog. I spent a week or so eating into every last second of my free time to craft a massive list of every film that was ever nominated in specific, major categories at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Independent Spirit Awards. Then I added every movie from my NY Times 1000 greatest movies book. Then I picked movies that somehow didn’t end up on any of that which I enjoy and thought would be fun to review. To top it all off, a year and a half after making the initial list (which I had to make twice because at one point, I lost the original list. Now, it’s saved in the Cloud), I added another 1000 films from the 10001 movies you have to see before you die list. There’s obviously a lot of crossover here and I delete duplicates. Still, there’s thousands of films on my list. They aren’t all winners (*cough* How to Marry a Millionaire *cough*), but there are moments when the hassle of making my list and sitting through the occasionally shitty award-bait film pays off. I would have never heard of Conversations With Other Women let alone watched it had it not been for my list, and the same goes for British indie Nil by Mouth, but they’re now two of the rare films to get perfect scores on this blog. I have another film to add to the list of movies that would have completely escaped my attention had I not started this blog, and it would have been a shame if I had missed Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me because it has one of the strongest scripts I’ve ever seen.)

In a world of Fellinis, Bergmans, and Malicks, it can be too easy to undervalue a film whose strengths rely solely on those old-fashioned concepts of a strong script and human performances. How many times have you heard someone say they liked a movie but they found it to be visually uninteresting. Without coming out and stating it directly, many find a lack of cinematic artifice in modern film-making to be a deficit of character. There’s an easily explainable reason for this. While I refute the naysayers that believe we’ve completely exhausted the well of truly original storytelling (one need look no further than the ouvre of David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman to see that isn’t true), it’s safe to say that the old stream of inspiration has become a trickle of staid reboots, remakes, and sequels. These days, directors have to wow an audience with head-spinning, post-modern mental gymnastics to stand out from the pack because some variation of their story has already been told.

Occasionally though, a film slips through the cracks with such a pure and honest reflection of the world that originality and style be damned. It pierces that great veil of the human experience and exposes truths we’ve kept at bay and begs a solution to questions we didn’t know we had. Gary Oldman’s highly autobiographical Nil by Mouth was British poverty and addiction and abuse rolled into brutal and terrifying package. The overt (and some say distracting) style and haute couture of Tom Ford’s A Single Man couldn’t overwhelm the haunting tragedy of a closeted British professor on the day he’s decided to commit suicide. Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 family drama You Can Count on Me is as straight forward and direct a film in terms of style that’s ever been made. Yet, Lonergan’s script cuts closer to the truth of family, disappointment, and coming to terms with our own limitations than any film I’ve ever seen. Whether you’re a cinephile or a casual film lover, its power is astonishing.

If there’s ever a genre that’s been beaten to death, it’s the family drama. Watching a dysfunctional family fight and heal is one of the oldest stories there are. However, its themes are so universal that if its done well and given the proper perspective and veracity it deserves, family dramas can transcend their humble origins to be something so much more. Perhaps because Kenneth Lonergan (who also wrote the script) isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel and perhaps because he doesn’t try to use any of the typical cinematic tricks to distract from any potential shortcomings in his script, You Can Count on Me becomes on of those pictures. Focusing his lens on a brother and sister who were bound by the death of their parents and then torn apart by life, it’s an intimate search into forgiveness and understanding but with the honest grasp that sometimes reconciliation is beyond our abilities.

When they were small children, Samantha Prescott (The Savages‘ Laura Linney) and Terry Prescott (The Kids Are All Right‘s Mark Ruffalo) lost their parents in a car accident. Samantha decided to stay in their small Catskills town of Scottsdale where she got knocked up and abandoned by the layabout father of her now 8 year old son Rudy (Scott Pilgrim‘s Rory Culkin). She just manages to get by with a dead end job as a loan officer at the local bank where the new boss Brian (Ferris Bueller‘s Matthew Broderick) is forcing her to stop digging into her own lunch hour to take her son to the babysitter after school. She has a loveless sexual relationship with a local man, Bob (Jon Tenney), that satisfies a deep seated need for male approval and distracts her when her son starts asking awkward questions about his disappeared father.

Terry on the other hand walked a more exciting but troubled path. Raging against the conventionality of Scottsdale (and the classic small-town rebel complaint that there isn’t anything to do), Terry left town as soon as he could. He wandered the country, a transient nomad, picking up small-time jobs here and there. Though he seems to love Alaska, he could never stick in one place for long, and eventually, a stint in jail in Florida and an exhaustion of his funds (which were indirectly implied to be supplying a serious drug habit) sends him to his sister’s doorstep to ask for some money. When Terry’s girlfriend tries to kill herself in his absence, Terry decides to stay with Samantha indefinitely. Though the flawed but ultimately lovable Terry instantly bonds with Rudy (who desperately seeks a father figure), his spite and irresponsibility mean its simply a matter of time before he ends up hurting everyone around him yet again.

The phrase “fully realized characters” has rarely meant as much as it does in You Can Count on Me. Terry and Samantha (and to a lesser extent supporting players like Rudy and Brian) are multi-layered, endlessly dynamic creations who never act in the way you expect but always (and I can’t emphasize that enough) follow the logic created for them within the context of the script. While on the surface, the gainfully employed, loving single mother Samantha may seem like the more well-adjusted of the siblings, but you quickly learn throughout the film that she can be just as impetuous and self-destructive as her brother. And despite Terry’s spiteful ways, he’s seemingly more intelligent than his sister and has his own (tragic) philosophy on how to view the world. These characters learn lessons but don’t change. If they have character arcs, they are slow and shift changes that simply strip away to a new layer of these fascinating creations.

The performances are as subtle and powerful as the script. Laura Linney (one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her generation) is flawless as the beleaguered Samantha. She gives Samantha a desperate tenderness. Throughout the film as one criticism after another is laid at her by her boss, by Terry, or by her son, Samantha flashes a nervous smile and her face belies the wounds of harsh words. Despite all of the tragedy that has befallen her (and her constant mishandling of life’s situations), Samantha still exudes a natural warmth. Though she often messes up, it is never done to intentionally hurt someone (the opposite of Terry’s behavior), though she often does. With Linney’s natural and complex performance, Samantha weaves in out as a repressed single mother, a dispassionate lover, a scorned and upset sister, and an angry woman, hurt by the way the world’s treated her.

Mark Ruffalo is no less impressive. In one of the film’s best scenes, a drunk Terry wanders into Rudy’s room (which used to be Terry’s when he was a child), lights up a cigarette, and proceeds to “educate” his nephew on the truths of the world. Shattering his nephew’s illusions about Rudy’s father once and for all, Mark Ruffalo gets right to the heart of Terry. Which is to say, a brutally honest survivor who has internalized his fatalism and deep-rooted suspicions that nothing will ever end well into a cynical shield that protects him from the world around him. That would be sad but fine except he’s hell-bent on converting every other soul around him to his jaded world view. Ruffalo captures Terry’s intellectual spark, his endless reservoir of anger, and his manic energy. As Terry shifts and twitches in his seat, you see the restless soul that will never find a place to call home.

Few films have so successfully realized on scene after scene of great individual moments without sacrificing any unity of the final picture. Still, You Can Count on Me is full to the brim with memorable scenes that all add to the greater portrait of the Prescott family. In one of the climactic moments of the film, Terry (without Samantha’s approval) decides that it would be wise to introduce Rudy to his real father, and although it’s as disastrous as you’d imagine, it nails the dichotomy of Terry’s character where he’s trying to do something good but makes things worse in the end. In Samantha’s most defining scene, she sits down with her priest (played by the film’s director, Kenneth Lonergan) to discuss her angst about cheating on her boyfriend with a married man (whose wife is pregnant), and she seeks punishment and anger for all of the flaws in herself she can’t seem to correct. Whether it’s these moments or Terry taking Rudy out to play pool at a bar or Samantha’s battle of the will’s with her boss, You Can Count on Me is the rare film where every scene is a winner.

The old movie adage, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry,” is overused and meaningless, but Kenneth Lonergan’s script delivers a soul-baring emotional ride. It is a warm and hopeful film (but honest in our human limitations and cognizant that we can only change so much) which is refreshing when so much cinema focuses solely on the negative sides of life. Lonergan has often been called the great American playwright of his generation (where he’s done much of his work), and perhaps it’s his single-minded focus to tell about this family and their pains, but he’s managed to do so much more. He created one of the best American films of the 2000s and one of the most impressive observations of American family life and small town angst that has ever been made.

Final Score: A+