Manchester by the Sea is a hard movie in every sense of the description.
It focuses on emotionally hardened characters whose lives have been defined by tragedy and loss. It’s set in a place and time defined by the harsh cold of winter.
Most importantly, it approaches those characters, that place and time with a deliberate lack of sentimentality. The goal for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan seems to be harsh, but liberating emotional truth.
Lonergan achieves his goal in the film thanks in part to the work of a brilliant ensemble led by Casey Affleck. The cast all around should be in the various awards conversations come Spring, but its Affleck and the emotional barrenness that he projects that drives the film. It’s no overstatement to say his is career-defining work here.
What’s it about?
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor for apartment buildings in a Boston suburb. Lee’s good at his job — he’s handy and versatile. But he keeps himself closed off to everyone, and often rubs tenants and those around him the wrong way with his aloofness.
Lee finds himself called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies after a long illness.
To Lee’s great surprise, Joe asked in his will that Lee be made guardian to his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom). As he tries to adjust to his new responsibilities, he’s forced to face a number of difficult challenges.
The first is, of course, Patrick. Though they were close when the teen was a child, Lee finds he barely knows his nephew, or how to handle him.
Then there’s the question of staying in Manchester, a place full of ghosts and painful memories for Lee. Townsfolk see him on the streets and whisper about him. His ex-wife, Brandi (Michelle Williams), still lives there, a reminder of the heartbreak that drove him to leave.
The longer Lee stays, the more difficult it becomes to remain closed off, to keep his pain to himself. He finds that in order to be what Joe hoped he could be, he’ll have to make peace with the past.
Most importantly, he’ll have to forgive himself for his role in the terrible tragedy that left him broken.
Lonergan keeps things stark, minimal
Lonergan scripts many scenes in Manchester by the Sea with little to no dialogue. Many of these scenes are built around depicting Lee’s solitary existence.
Unclogging toilets. Shoveling snow. Fixing leaks in ceilings and getting furnaces working. Drinking a beer at a crowded bar after work without saying a word to anyone nearby.
Lonergan tasks Affleck with informing these scenes with tension. He challenges the actor to convey Lee’s efforts to stay walled off even when forced to deal with people day in and day out. Those efforts are especially complicated when he’s asked to look after Patrick and to face Brandi again.
Through it all, the writer/director trusts his lead actor to come through, and shows faith in audiences’ ability to comprehend without it all spelled out in exposition. Lonergan also avoids a chronological telling of the story — it flows in and out of past and present, following where Lee’s emotions direct in each scene.
What results is a film that captivates because it demands audiences’ investment. There’s nothing easy here, nor should there be, and ultimately it leads to a rewarding experience.
Affleck, cast tremendous
Casey Affleck meets the challenges set forth by Manchester by the Sea with impressive command of his craft. His Lee is like an old wound, scarred over and kept hidden, but still raw. The role demands projecting a very complex array of conflicting emotions, all of which he delivers. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece of a performance.
There isn’t a false note to be found anywhere in the supporting cast, either. Williams, who is darn near always excellent, shines in limited screen time – her scenes with Affleck inform much of emotional landscape of the whole film, though they only share a handful of scenes.
Lucas Hedges, meanwhile, shows talent to watch out for in the future with his strong take on Patrick. Had it been written and performed differently, it’s a role that could have dragged the film down with forced sentiment. Hedges keeps Patrick real and relatable — his experience with loss and dealing with difficult change feels “true.”
Make no mistake. Come Golden Globes and Oscar nomination time, Manchester by the Sea will be in the conversation in a number of categories. If you like looking at the list of Best Picture nominees and noting that you’ve seen all of them, make a point to see this film, because it will be on that list.
Is it a fun movie to watch? No. But it is a rewarding one, one that should set a standard for talent and execution in character-driven dramas. In that regard, it’s one of 2016’s best, and thus should not be missed.
Manchester by the Sea
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol and C.J. Wilson. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Running Time: 137 minutes
Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.