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The literary critic Harold Bloom observed, “Without Shakespeare, we would not have seen ourselves as what we are.” Kenneth Lonergan also wields the mirror, minus the cinematic frills that embellish and distract from most of what passes for “character” films these days. He’d likely scoff at Bardly comparisons, but at the very least, both dramatists serve the hypothesis that as humans, we’re endlessly fascinating to ourselves. If the acclaim surrounding Lonergan’s work could be distilled to a few common points, one would surely be that he possesses one of the most acute, truth-detecting radars of any modern play or screenwriter. Tim Sanford, who’s produced some of Lonergan’s plays, said, “His understanding of character is so rich, he finds the essence of what makes people click.”
If there’s any complaint to be lodged about his projects, it may be the lag time between them, which can be long enough to render newer fans unfamiliar with some of his finest work. We trust the current buzz surrounding Manchester By the Sea, which he wrote and directed, will prompt some much-deserved rediscovery. If notoriously and self-admittedly cranky, slow, recalcitrant and prone to “always sitting home in a depression,” he is also painstaking in his adherence to the authenticity of every phrase, of every shot and cut. The small, ordinary moments that comprise his work are what hit home the hardest, only they don’t hit as much as sink in, absorbed through our porous shared experience.
Lonergan’s mom and stepdad were both psychoanalysts whose clients were (anonymously) subjects of dinner table discussion, inspiring his fascination with real people and their individual experience of the world (it also inspired the idea for Analyze This, a film he wrote solely to make money and has never seen.) He began writing plays in the ninth grade, and his play The Rennings Children, written when he was 18, was produced by the Young Playwrights Festival in 1982. His real theater breakout came 14 years later with This Is Our Youth, which was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Best Play and continues to be regularly staged. Four years later, The Waverly Gallery was nominated for a Pulitzer, and he followed with Lobby Hero, another Drama Desk contender. In his review of that play, Spectator’s Toby Hill wrote, “…within about five minutes, any sense you have of being a member of the audience…has vanished. You’re totally absorbed in what’s going on. Lonergan is particularly good at showing how good intentions can be undermined by unconscious desires. Few of his characters are capable of resisting their own malignant impulses.”
All along, Lonergan was also screenwriting, sometimes for his own artistic fulfillment, sometimes for hire. In 2000, You Can Count on Me brought him to the wide and sudden attention of the film business. The plot was simple – a young man (Mark Ruffalo) in financial straits moves in with his sister (Laura Linney) in their small hometown – but the characters and story sang. The New York Times wrote, “There was such intense realness about it, the way people really talk, the way lives are actually lived, that was unlike anything else on screen, radical almost, in its attention to the genuine messiness of human lives.” It was eleven more years before he wrote and directed his next film, the beautiful and devastating Margaret. It crushed Lonergan in the process. Release was delayed for years over a ruinous legal battle with the studio over (mainly) the length of film. He agonized over the artistic compromises he was forced to make and disavowed the version released by the studio, which basically dumped it. As a result, most people missed a film The New Yorker said would be “…remembered, years and decades hence, as one of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders.”
The blow was lasting, prompting friends like Matt Damon to step in. To cheer him up, Damon commissioned the script for Manchester By the Sea, and five years after Margaret, we’re looking at another masterpiece. Like most of his work, it gives voice to mundane people leading mundane lives, but without condescension – or resolution. Singular events and problems may be settled, but questions of his characters’ destinies go largely unanswered. How can they be? Like ours, they’ll continue to unfold slowly and haphazardly. If you believe life should be tidy, you believe we have the ability to control it. Nice idea, shaky premise.
Amazon snatched up rights to Manchester for $10 million, and with more platforms becoming studios, no doubt Lonergan’s subtle, resounding voice will reach the wider audience it merits. If it’s a bit slow in happening, that’s okay. We’ll wait.