Manchester by the Sea (movie review)

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In a way, Manchester by the Sea, the new film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is a minor miracle. Here’s a film whose protagonist has ruined his life through a horrifyingly plausible accident, left his titular coastal hometown due to overwhelming grief and guilt and now must return to take care of his nephew following his brother’s death, yet somehow it manages to avoid melodrama and emotional manipulation. This film gives a clinic in restraint, yet there’s no denying the mark it will leave.

To say Manchester is a downer is to oversimplify matters and ignore the film’s emotional complexity and gorgeous naturalism in a story with no easy answers or moments of eye-opening catharsis. Lonergan, much like a Richard Linklater-type, puts real life on display, avoiding unnecessary narrative contrivance, letting the situations play out naturally and honestly and allowing his audience members to form their own feelings and opinions without thrusting these things upon them.

One of his greatest assets in this endeavor is Casey Affleck, playing the main role of Lee Chandler in one of his best performances to date. He shows us flat, distant behavior on the outside, while simultaneously conveying the emotional turmoil going on within. This turmoil doesn’t manifest in grand displays, yet we can feel his personal struggles in every glance, every gesture, every word.

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When we meet Lee, he’s working as a handyman for a few apartment buildings, fixing toilets and showers. How he handles clients shows us the lack of social skills he possesses as does his behavior with women in bars where he goes to drown away his sorrows and engage in random fights. At first, we condemn him for such senseless acts, but as the plot slowly unravels, we do the unthinkable and actually empathize with this man whose actions are really meant to punish himself more than his victims.

But he wasn’t always a complete shell of a man. We’re shown flashbacks of his former life that are interwoven flawlessly throughout the film. Often, this technique impedes the momentum of a story, but the film never ceases to flow gracefully. Lee lived an imperfect but happy, comfortable and stable life with his loving wife Randi (a phenomenal Michelle Williams) and three children. Lee and Randi don’t have a fairy tale marriage, but the two performers convince you of a deep love that prevails despite the bickering and nagging.

But this life feels like a distant memory when the movie starts. Though it takes some time, we finally learn about Lee’s life-changing incident roughly halfway through the film in one of the most powerful, devastating sequences you’ll see this year. As we’re given an explanation of the event, our hearts break with Lee as we realize how such a minor lapse in concentration has ruined so many lives and left Lee a tortured soul. Ironically, the sequence provides possibly the only weak aspect of this film. Lesley Barber’s score is often a perfect blend of sorrow and hope, but in this scene, and perhaps a few others, it feels intrusive. Lonergan is excellent at allowing the story to speak for itself, so it’s odd that he would try to amplify the already intense sequence with overbearing music when mere silence would have been more effective. It’s a testament to the skill of the filmmakers and performers that the sequence still shines.

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Once we learn why Lee is so damaged, we appreciate this character even more. We understand why he’s so floored when he’s told, in a pitch-perfect scene, that his recently deceased brother Joe (the always reliable Kyle Chandler) has made him the legal guardian of Lee’s nephew Patrick, played by a very fine Lucas Hedges. From here, Lee has to take care of funeral arrangements, look after Patrick and ultimately decide what he’s going to do in the long run. Watching Lee navigate this chaotic situation through the restrained acting wizardry of Affleck is a delight. Whether he’s pacing back and forth, trying not to get angry at his chatty nephew, putting off important conversations or simply being flustered about forgetting where he parked his car, Affleck makes Lee’s internal strife almost tangible. It’s especially interesting watching these characters manage their simmering emotions during mundane tasks as when Lee drives Patrick to band practice or to one of his two girlfriends’ houses. After all, even after a loved one dies, normal life still goes on.

This also, surprisingly, is where the humor comes into play. Yes, in a movie as tragic as this, Lonergan still manages to find humor in the aforementioned mundanity, especially through Lee and Patrick’s brilliant chemistry. The dynamic between the older, jaded, quiet Lee who’s exiting his youth and the younger, naïve, talkative Patrick who’s right in the middle of his youth is priceless. The last thing Lee needs right now is this kid following him around and the tortured look on his face every time Patrick asks another question is equally priceless as is the response he gives Patrick when his nephew asks if a girl can come over. “No,” he replies. “I don’t like her.” Brilliant.

There’s definitely no humor in the most moving scene of the film, though. Toward the end of the movie, Lee runs into his ex-wife, Randi, on the street. This is an extraordinary, heartbreaking scene with two actors at the very top of their game. How they handle the emotional complexity of the meeting is simply astonishing. And Lonergan is wise not to have the actors spell out every single thought and feeling in the dialogue. What is implied is powerful enough.

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All the sublime performances and dialogue culminate in an ending that can’t possibly please everyone. But, that’s okay. Most people are looking for an ending that’s wrapped up in a neat little package, but Lonergan provides something much more honest, human and true to the characters and their struggles and this idea permeates the entirety of one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 4.5/5 Atoms

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