Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams
Running time: 137 minutes
Every once in a while, within the ever-expanding CGI universe that appears to engulf Hollywood mainstream cinema (where entire worlds can be created with a few clicks of a mouse), there comes along a film that strips it all back and gives us a masterful lesson in storytelling. And Kenneth Lonergan’s raw, immensely powerful Manchester by the Sea is just that – certainly an early contender for one of 2017’s best and maybe, just maybe, Oscar bound.
The film follows Boston handyman Lee Chandler (a career best performance from Affleck) who is suddenly called back to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts after the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Once there, he is tasked with looking after his now fatherless teenage nephew (Hedges), but Manchester is also the scene of an even greater grief for Chandler, and returning there threatens to push him over the edge.
In a most oxymoronic fashion, Manchester by the Sea is beautifully bleak. Shot with true patience and delicacy by writer/director Lonergan, from snowy Boston to the overcast, colourless Massachusetts coast, his film paints a painful, but oddly mesmeric, depiction of grief and loss. Narrative structuring is expertly and most appropriately constructed as we follow the past and present as it interjects one another throughout. And Lonergan’s abstinence from any form of narrative predictability or convention gives his work real depth and heart-breaking realism. At the centre of it all is Lee Chandler – a man who spends his days fixing strangers’ homes, and his nights picking drunken fights in bars. The irony of this handyman is that despite his talent in fixing leaks and unclogging toilets, he is unable to fix himself – he is content being alone in his box-room where he can simply box up his pain. There is a complexity and confliction within him; one of quiet emptiness and explosive, violent anger. Rarely does he allow any raw emotion to consciously seep out; yet his past appears etched on his weary and tired face in a film where as much is learned in what is not said than what is.
There is, even during the film’s most shocking and revealing flashback, a real emotional understating at play here. Refreshingly, Manchester by the Sea refrains from milking its more heightened emotional sequences; and in many ways, Lonergan’s decision to play it organically gives the film a rare, added power. Dotted around such weight are welcomed moments of expertly pitched humour. Lee’s nephew, Patrick, is the necessary comical foil to the island Chandler has become, but crucially we are never allowed to believe Patrick has overcome his grief – he is merely better at disguising it than his uncle.
“I’m not going to bother you, I’m just going to sit here until you calm down” Chandler states at one point and, in doing so, exemplifies how Lonergan’s narrative is one also about the struggle of understanding. Most prominently is the film’s central relationship – that between nephew and uncle – and how, both burdened with grief, they fail to fully understand one another or truly connect on any emotional level. Equally, Chandler himself is an enigma, someone who the residents of Manchester, and those in the cinema screen are constantly trying to understand and unpick throughout, but who Lonergan never completely allows us to.
The casting choices appear to have been approached with the same care and intricacy as the film itself. As alluded to above, Casey Affleck is truly a revelation in such a complex leading role that will surely make the Academy stand up and take notice. Opposite him, Hedges is a terrific find; more than holding his own alongside more experienced actors and bringing real maturity and authenticity to a role so crucial to the success of the film. With limited screen time, Michelle Williams gives a tremendous turn as Chandler’s ex-wife Randi and, in the film’s final third, shares with Affleck one of the most memorable, heart-wrenching exchanges in recent times.
Much like the Manchester weather report we might imagine, Lonergan’s narrative is warm in spells, but mostly grey and overcast. Beautifully told, agonizingly real and magnificently acted; Manchester by the Sea is character-driven cinema of the highest order.