Manchester by the Sea (United States, 2016)

December 08, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Manchester by the Sea Poster

For a small percentage of people, grief can be a catalyst. For most of us, however, it’s a paralyzing force that threatens to entomb us in a coffin of sorrow and despair. Most movies, in attempting to depict this, fall into an abyss of melodrama and manipulation - qualities that can doom even a narrative with the best of intentions. Not so with Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s raw, searing drama about how grief has reduced a good man into a hollow shell of his former self. Unforced acting couples with a nuanced, insightful script to tell a story that, although seemingly simple, is achingly complex. Longergan’s honest, straightforward approach keeps the movie and its emotions real and never make the viewer feel that he or she is being forced to feel one way or another.

Manchester by the Sea introduces us to Lee (Casey Affleck), a surly janitor/handyman who engages in menial labor as a way of passing the days. In the evenings, he hangs out at a bar where he displays a shocking lack of social skills. He drifts through life like an anonymous piece of flotsam in choppy seas. One day, he gets a call from Manchester, the place he once called “home.” His older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has been hospitalized and may not make it. By the time Lee completes the 90-minute drive, Joe has passed away. He is left to plan the funeral and take care of Joe’s 16-year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Much to his surprise (and consternation), Lee learns that Joe has named him as Patrick’s guardian, which means that either Patrick will have to uproot his life and move to Boston with Lee or Lee will have to return to Manchester - a possibility he dreads.

There’s a secret here, although it’s not a whiplash-inducing twist. Nonetheless, there’s a mystery about Lee and his relationship to Manchester that we learn gradually as flashbacks and current encounters make it apparent why it’s so difficult for him to come back home and why he may not be able to stay. This all culminates in one of the year’s most intense and wrenching scenes - an encounter between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) where the remaining missing pieces fall into place.

Manchester by the Sea is about mood, acting, character, and dialogue. It’s not about narrative (at least not in the conventional sense) or action. Those in search of an escape from the daily grind of life won’t find it here. Manchester by the Sea plunges the viewer deep into Lee’s world of monotony and pointlessness. Then, like peeling away the layers of an onion, it reveals how he got where he is and offers a path forward. There’s a kind of hope at the end, not of the “happily ever after” variety but something more believable and, therefore, more satisfying.

When Oscar nominations are doled out in January 2017, Casey Affleck’s name should deservedly be among them. Affleck has done fine work before (in, among others, Gone Baby Gone and Interstellar) but this is easily his best performance. He captures Lee’s malaise in every gesture, movement, and spoken word. He embodies repressed despair and, when the dam cracks, he lets the pain pour through. Affleck is capably supported by an excellent Michelle Williams (in a limited role) and relative newcomer Lucas Hedges but this is his movie. It’s ironic to note that the role was originally given to Matt Damon, who had to back out due to conflicts. After seeing the movie, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Affleck playing Lee; he immerses himself in the role.

Considering that Manchester by the Sea is likely to be frequently mentioned on end-of-the-year lists and nominated for various awards, it represents a form of redemption for Lonergan, whose previous film, Margaret, had a long and tortured history. Although the director’s extended cut of Margaret has been described by some (including Martin Scorsese) as a masterpiece, Manchester by the Sea is no less quietly powerful. Although the characters don’t traverse much physical terrain, the emotional topography of the film is vast. The movie requires a little patience at the outset - we have become so inured to the fast pacing of modern popcorn fare that the slower, more deliberate approach favored by Lonergan can at first feel alien - but it eventually immerses the viewer in Lee’s world.

Manchester by the Sea is the kind of movie we only get during Awards Season because its appeal is limited. It doesn’t offer quick, disposable moments of glee or adrenaline or triumph. It’s not cinematic fast food. If you want superficial entertainment, Manchester by the Sea will disappoint. This is for those who crave a deeper experience.

Manchester by the Sea (United States, 2016)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes
Music: Lesley Barber
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2016
Run Time: 2:17
U.S. Release Date: 2016-11-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Adult Themes)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1