Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual content)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Date: November 18, 2016
The Affleck/Middleton Project, B Story, Big Indie Pictures, CMP, Pearl Street Films, and Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions.
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan.
Loneliness and mundanity are a warm blanket to Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a divorced New England handyman who moves through each and every day quietly helping a number of residents in and around a workmanlike Boston town. He has more work than one person can handle, but seems to take it all in stride, having a series of interactions with an eclectic mix of equally lonely and mundane clientele.
He lives in a nondescript apartment and finishes most nights at a neighborhood bar, but there is a seething, almost too calm quiet that bubbles underneath the surface. Not exactly happy, but satisfied with life for now, he learns that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died unexpectedly. Covering work for a few days, he heads out to his old hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, located about an hour-and-a-half away. After some tenuous reconnections, and facing palpable pain and loss immediately upon arrival, Lee soon learns that he has been named the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Naturally, Lee was never told this was his brother’s wishes.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has made three films since 2000, with his previous film Margaret having a historically rocky and litigious six-year journey from page to screen. With this intimate, character-driven tale, he crafts a film of occasional power and raw emotion, with Affleck giving a stunning, emotionally choked off performance that finds grace and anger within the story Lonergan seems aching to tell.
Manchester By The Sea effortlessly weaves us in and out of the present and past and does so patiently, Lonergan carrying us through a tale of fractured family ties. He hangs absence, disconnection, pain, and regret as a scaffolding for a refreshingly honest and uncompromising drama, intermittently humorous in its anecdotal observations. With that said, Lonergan keeps us at an arms length, as if we observe these situations from a distant bar stool just within earshot. He does, however, strike a chord in how the characters wrestle with their personal baggage and push back at the internal struggles which determine what is shared, expressed, and also hidden and buried away.
The takeaway is Casey Affleck, who has already starting winning precursor prizes for Best Actor, and is a fascinating study here. Lee tries every way he knows how in trying to connect with the hardened, street-smart, and perpetually horny Patrick. Occasionally they connect, often on separate pages, but as Patrick seemingly adheres to an unfettered freedom with his father gone, Lee seems ill equipped to settle down and just breathe in the new air around him. Affleck carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, in his cheekbones, in his taut jaw and far away gazes. At times we want to shake him out of his stunted stupor and, in other moments, allow him space to exude silent pain.
Affleck is getting justified praise for his work, but one would be mistaken to dismiss Manchester By The Sea as focused exclusively on male-centered emotions. Much of the strength in the film comes from Lonergan’s female ensemble, led by the tremendous Michelle Williams, portraying Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, who delivers, alongside Affleck, the film’s most heartbreaking scene in a chance encounter neither seem quite prepared for. A subplot develops between Patrick’s mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), connecting to her son for the first time in years after a self-destructive lifestyle compromised her marriage to Joe. When the two finally meet, a bizarro world seems to open up for Patrick; surprises abound, and things take an unexpected turn for all involved.
And perhaps that’s a central theme to what resonates in and around Manchester By The Sea: the distaste for surprises.
As focused and measured as these characters try to be, as settled into lives as they have become, something breaks apart their carefully constructed world, leaving them desperate to fit their frayed puzzle pieces back together. Lonergan never jolts us with smash cuts or jarring edits, he spends his time tactfully and allows us to immerse ourselves in lives that we can connect with. We know the Lees of the world, men who were raised to never cry, to observe but suppress emotions, and just make it through one day at a time. We also know Patricks and Randis of the world. And we may have encountered Elises as well – people who desperately attempt to shed the skin of a person they never wanted to be, only to become tangled up in gift wrapping that never quite adheres to the package kept inside.
Manchester By The Sea, at 137 minutes, does unravel a bit in the final act and falls victim to repetitiveness. However, it captures emotion – the rush of it, the lack of it, and the messy juggling of it – expertly well. Masterfully acted, skillfully directed, this may ultimately prove too melancholy for some viewers and hit far too close to home for others. And yet, there is a beauty here that cannot be unwound by any of the film’s unfortunate imperfections.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- In terms of acting performances, Manchester By The Sea is brilliant, with Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and perhaps even Lucas Hedges all in line for Oscar nominations this year.
- Thankfully, Kenneth Lonergan did not let the untenable situation which engulfed the making of his last film deter him from creating this strong, thoughtful character-driven study.
- A film that speaks to the constant need for adjustment, often when life seems settled and habitual. The characters all have experienced varying degrees of change and Lonergan and his cast convey a realness to their film that is fantastic to observe.
- Manchester By The Sea may fall victim to the potential of “unlikable characters” syndrome, where main characters are shown to be flawed, cinched up, and closed off, perhaps even arrogant or petulant. Some will love this, others may be annoyed by it.
- Save a couple of scenes, the film intentionally holds viewers at an arms-length. As a result, the film’s running time and slice-of-life storytelling may feel like nothing all that special.
- 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 95% on Flixster. This film deserves a look and yeah, people are kind of standoffish and cold, but they are real. If you cannot handle real emotion and tangible drama that is well-acted and realistically brought to life on screen, then there’s a new Kevin James movie on Netflix, where he plays a spy or something.