Manchester by the Sea (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout and some sexual content
Running Time: 137 min.
Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Michelle Williams, Anna Baryshnikov, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Kara Hayward, Tate Donavan
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Review published December 12, 2016
Manchester by the Sea is a drama concerning a contentious Boston 'burb janitor named Lee Chandler (Affleck, Triple 9), working with little joy for a meager wage and a basic one-room abode. It turns out that there is a reason for him being anguished at this stage in his life, which is something we come to know more about as the film plays out. He's prone to getting into fights, he's resistant to making emotional connections, and, in general, he's a person too wrapped up in trying to suppress his own thoughts and feelings all of his waking hours that he has little energy to expend in trying to deal with the needs of those around him. In short, he's a man in grief but hasn't yet dealt with it head on, and actively avoids anything that might push his mind toward any notions he's just not ready, willing or able to.
Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, You Can Count on Me) writes and directs this heartfelt drama, told in a chronologically jumbled order (in ways that aren't always apparent until a few moments into certain scenes), about a man trying to come to terms with a troubled past, as well as being thrust into a position of guardianship with his teenage nephew, Patrick (Hedges, Anesthesia). He's a guardian because, adding more fuel to the fire, Lee loses his older brother Joe (Chandler, Carol), and with that loss, the only person he's connected with that might understand what he's going through at this stage of his life. As Lee desperately wants to remove himself from anything that might rekindle his past, which means getting the hell out of the small town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Patrick only wants to stay more entrenched in his own extracurricular activities, which help him keep his mind occupied enough to deal with his own grief for the recent loss of his father.
Manchester by the Sea excels for many reasons, but one is the rich levels of details brought to the story that make it feel authentic. Moments like a passenger in a car trying to get out while still moving, or someone dealing with trouble getting items piled up in the freezer back into it before they fall again, not only come from a level of reality rare to find in a major motion picture, but also happen to fit in thematically to the mind state of the characters. Lee tends to be withdrawn into his own thoughts, to the point where he misses the potential issues that may face those around him, which, as the movie plays out, is indicative of many of his problems that occur into the vicious cycle of depression he is going through. He can't even tell when someone is flirting with him, and misreads glances toward him as signs of aggression; when he decides to act upon them with violence, they seem senseless from outside appearances, but once you know the full story, it all comes together to give us his inner workings without the need for him to speechify them for expository information.
Many of the accolades will no doubt be going to the performances at the heart of the movie, especially Casey Affleck, who seems tailor made to play handsome but withdrawn characters (shades of younger Alan Arkin), in the lead role, playing perfectly a man proceeding through a life that he isn't really sure he finds worth living. Michelle Williams (Certain Women) has a small supporting role as Lee's ex-wife Randi, but her casting pays great dividends in a couple of scenes that require her to impart a great deal of emotional information about their previous relationship in a short amount of time; her scenes linger with you long after experience of watching the film. Younger actor Lucas Hedges also impresses in balancing the film out as the reason why Lee needs to return to Manchester to work things out, even though it is painful having to revisit the memories of his past with constant reminders of who he once was.
There are quite a number of smaller roles within the film, each of them seeming rich and lived-in, despite only one or two lines for them to deliver. The only questionable casting decision occurs from a cameo from a well-known star (who has appeared in all four of Lonergan's features) later in the film that may be the first instance of this absorbing story to draw you back out to reflect that you're watching a movie again. But that only last for a few seconds, and then we're right back into the thick of things, allowing Lonergan's pacing to set the tempo, then his use of music, some of which supplants scenes of dialogue, to match with the imagery, making Manchester by the Sea one of the better cinematic experiences in drama in recent years.
While Manchester by the Sea is a drama at its core, Lonergan draws forth a number of humorous moments that should temper the experience for those who might be inclined to stay away from the film, perhaps hearing that it is a downer. Yes, it does contain a number of emotional moments, but to call this a tearjerker would be so limiting as to be a misnomer. It is an honestly realized drama about love, loss, grief, and the difficulty of maintaining connections through tragedy, and quite an astute, textured one at that. There are few better films, not just in this year, but in this decade.
©2016 Vince Leo