Western storytelling has long relied on the character arc, following someone’s journey from one place or set of assumptions to a change, a revelation. These two exceptional films at this year’s Sundance Festival follow characters who either have no interest in changing or are powerless to do so.
Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s much anticipated follow-up to the sublime Margaret, begins with a familiar circumstance. Lee (Casey Affleck), a young man with a reckless disposition and a crushing tragedy in his past, returns to his hometown on Massachusetts’ North Shore to take care of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his 16-year-old nephew. Patrick has just lost his father, but finds himself called on to take care of his uncle.
The film offers a series of present scenes intermingled with flashbacks that slowly reveal the source of Lee’s pain, and the underpinnings of his relationships with Patrick as well as his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), who now has a new husband and a baby on the way. The narrative energy is premised not on plot, as not much happens, but on the characters’ relationships, their flashes of joy and suffering accumulating in astonishing ways.
It doesn’t hurt that the reliably affecting Affleck plays Lee like a prowling animal trapped in a small room. It’s clear that he’s longing for something, perhaps absolution, but it’s also clear that he won’t soon be finding it. The film’s emotional climax, when Lee finally articulates what has been plain to us from the beginning, is searing. At last he can see what we’ve seen all along.
Certain Women (2016)
Another sort of resistance to typical character trajectories comes in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. Like her previous movies — River of Grass, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy, and Night Moves — the new one uses a slow pace to conjure a contemplative, moody atmosphere.
That atmosphere results as well from Reichardt’s source material, as she adapts three stories from Montana-based writer Maile Meloy. The pieces fit together in a loose triptych with only a few threads of mostly geographic connective tissue between them. Montana, the film shows, is full of wide open, potentially lonely spaces.
In the first story, a lawyer named Laura (Laura Dern) is having an affair with a married man, Ryan (James Le Gros), as she’s also contending with a difficult client, Fuller (Jared Harris). Angry and convinced he has a case of negligence against his former employer despite little evidence, Fuller attempts to take matters in his own hands, leading to a hostage situation.
In the second story, Gina (Michelle Williams) pushes her husband (Ryan, the one having the affair with Laura) to acquire a vast pile of sandstone from the front yard of an elderly man (Rene Auberjonois) whom they both vaguely know. We become aware that her desire for the material — to be used in building a new home, a sign of some security — overwhelms her empathy for the old man or anyone else.
The third story follows Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who works alone in a horse stable. Her days are long and the place is empty of other people, as the film shows in beautifully composed shots.
Bored, Jamie heads out one night and begins randomly following a few cars. One leads her to a classroom, as she ends up sitting in on an Adult Ed class taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), a lawyer who lives in Livingston, Montana, some four hours away. The two sort of hit it off, but their investments in the relationship are different, a point plain to us even if it takes Jamie some time to realize it. When Beth suddenly stops teaching the class, the fretting Jamie drives the distance to Livingston in hopes of reconnecting with her.
Each story in Certain Women maintains a slow pace, while leading viewers to understand complex emotional depths, as these very different women grapple with loneliness and imminent loss, their hopes for changes they can’t quite identify. By the end, as in Manchester by the Sea, a lack of action suggests a lack of transformation.
If Manchester by the Sea and Certain Women don’t provide typical characters, they do encourage viewers to see their own expectations, as well as the profound effects of fear, inertia, and alienation. Not everyone gets to experience catharsis, both films suggest, but that doesn’t make these individual stories any less compelling or necessary.