Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Running Time: 137 mins
Synopsis: Lee Chandler (Affleck) is called back to his hometown, the titular Manchester by the Sea, after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). The first time he has returned since a past tragedy changed his life. But more complicated than the townsfolk’s reaction to him, is that he has also been made guardian to Joe’s 16 year old son Patrick (Hedges).
Manchester by the Sea is a quiet film. Characters say very little to each other, if they say anything at all. The score is only sporadically heard. Moments of intense emotional rage burst out in brief understated ways, rather than melodramatic cries of pain. For a film that deals with HEAVY themes, such as death, regret, familial pressures and grief, it is a testament to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan that there is not even a whiff of sensationalism. The power that lies within is immensely palpable.
A film of snapshots and open-ended scenes that unravel with patience and with seemingly no script. There is one of course, written by Lonergan, but it is so finely calibrated and authentic that it appears to be nothing less than real. Revolving around Casey Affleck’s Lee, we find him in self-imposed exile maintaining a living as a handyman. Joe is a reserved, laconic person, one who has a strikingly biting wit at times but also a tendency to lash out either in bar brawls or verbally at his rude customers. He is a tough protagonist to follow, we know something has caused him to retreat in this way but Lonergan frames it all as a mystery in order to fully maximise the impact of the eventual reveal. Manipulative this may be but its power cannot be denied (more on this moment later). Informed that his gentle brother (a wonderfully calm and loving performance from Chandler) has passed Lee returns to his hometown.
A bleak almost empty town, one in which everyone knows one another and one that only exacerbates the lone wolf instincts in Lee. As Lee collides with numerous members of the community, each offering words of comfort whilst also holding him at arms length, you begin to see the weight of all this sitting on his soul. Things are not helped when he has to take care of his brother’s teenage son Patrick, played with a wounded confidence by newcomer Lucas Hedges. Their interplay is warm with history but laced with mild contempt for the choices Lee has made. Although starting off gentle between them, as the effects of Joe’s death start to sink in the friction between them increases. Hedges is vital in these scenes, trying to maintain a normal life of attempted copulation with his two girlfriends whilst playing in a band, he slowly feels the gravity of his loss seeping in. One breakdown scene is unexpected but moving in its all too believable trigger point.
You can probably tell from all this that Manchester by the Sea has very little in the way of forward momentum, with the only real plot point kicking in midway when Lee discovers he has been made the boy’s guardian. The scene in which he discovers this fact is the pivotal moment of the film, in which we finally learn of the pain of Lee’s past through a phenomenally edited sequence. In fact throughout Lonergan splices in evocative flashbacks with sublime efficiency. They are never signposted, they just drop in and out, sometimes in the middle of a current day dialogue scene. It has an almost surreal effect, these flashes only containing simple images at times but always valuable in establishing key relationship dynamics. The central revelation of Lee’s tragedy comes almost by surprise, a seemingly regular party night at home leading to a truly horrific accident. Lonergan makes one key error here though. Through all of this emotional heart wrangling he pumps up a far too intruding soundtrack. The rest of the film uses it sparingly and elsewhere effectively but in this moment he over-eggs the pudding a tad giving way to the only real step towards melodrama in the whole piece.
Things soon get back on track for a final act of real heft. Notably triggered by Michelle Williams as a woman from Lee’s past. She is glimpsed little but each appearance is loaded with character, potency and immense grace from Williams. Her final scene with Lee pretty much cements her as a Best Supporting Actress nominee, dripping with sorrow, desperation and tears. It is a gut punch that leaves you exhausted.
This is Casey Affleck’s film though. Appearing in pretty much every scene he gives a performance of such subtlety that the Academy is going to find it tough to pick out a scene to feature in his showy nominations video. To the unobservant it could appear that he isn’t doing very much, but if you look close there is such sadness to his every move, his every word, even his stature. Every now and then the grief and pain he feels manifests itself. Whether in an offhanded comment, a vulnerable quiver in his voice or a simple quiet look at those around him to whom he feels so distant from. Even the inevitable breakdown scene is contained and intimate, ending almost as quickly as it starts. His Lee is nothing less than real, and possibly Affleck’s finest performance.
Containing as it does, very little plot, pervasive silences, lengthy scenes where seemingly nothing happens and a wilful abandonment of genre conventions Manchester by the Sea is inevitably a tough watch. Stretched past the 2 hour mark means you feel the length and I’m sure many will not wish to get aboard a train that demands strong patience from its audience. Certain scenes most definitely could have been trimmed but in doing so the delicate intricacies of the characters may have been lost on the cutting room floor. You will leave feeling rewarded, emotional and positive that no finer portrait of real grief has ever been portrayed with such measured grace.
Verdict: No film has so effectively shown the awkwardness, the sadness and the complexity of true grief, centred as it is around Casey Affleck’s masterfully controlled performance. It will hook you in with its quietness and leave you devastated with its fierce power.