Wrought with tragedy, heartache and familial estrangement, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” certainly isn’t an easy film to watch. You may find yourself fighting back tears or you may find yourself in a puddle of tears when the credits roll. However, thanks to a deliberate, gripping narrative style a magnificent performance from Casey Affleck and the use of humor to warm the film’s chilly demeanor, you’ll be unable to take your eyes off the screen no matter how somber the film gets.
“Manchester by the Sea” begins with a pleasant scene on the water in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, where Lee Chandler (Affleck) is on a fishing boat with a young boy. From there, the picture moves to Boston where we catch a glimpse into Chandler’s life as a handy man in an apartment building; he comes off apathetic and little defensive. At a bar one night, a woman purposefully spills her drink on him to strike up a conversation—he shows zero interest. And later on he picks a fight with a random patron.
Already there’s a sense of tension brewing beneath the surface of film; we wonder who this guy is and what the film is going to be about; maybe a lose slice-of-life feature about a troubled handy man? And why was he on that boat earlier? And who was that kid? Lonergan is in no hurry to provide answers. “Manchester by the Sea” moves at patient, steady pace; most of the scenes are extended, meticulously crafted single takes. Lonergan lets his camera linger on characters and interactions, capturing awkward silences and bits of trite small talk, allowing the scenes and the emotions within them to breathe.
A few scenes later, Lee receives a phone call informing him that his brother has passed away (and we don’t find this out until a few scenes after). So, he drives to his hometown Manchester-by-the-Sea to make funeral arrangements. Once there, he’s told that his deceased brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) made him the legal guardian of his adolescent son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a role that Lee isn’t sure he can handle.
Scene by scene, as the layers of the film are delicately pulled back like a tightly wound thriller, Manchester By the Sea” blossoms into a tense and thoughtful drama about grief and tragedy-- specifically how it takes a hold of us, cripples us, and how sometimes we can never fully shake it. Character and plot details are revealed in this measured and organic manner. Lonergan doesn’t over explain nor talk down to his audience. Flashbacks involving Chandler’s ex wife Randie (Michelle Williams) and Joe (Kyle Chandler) are worked seamlessly into the mix. This new family tragedy brings up past trauma. It turns out Lee has been through some truly awful stuff that still haunts him, leaving him damaged and emotionally stilted.
Affleck is tremendous. Currently, he may be our most underrated male actor, probably because unlike his older brother Ben he’s primarily acted in independent films. His powerfully understated turn here may be his best work to date. Lee is guarded and introverted; he’s one of those guys that would rather hold back his tears and emotions than express them. In one of the best scenes, at a police station, after hearing some terrible news the camera focuses on him in medium shot, slowly zooming in, as he tries with all of his might to keep from bursting (You will be too, watching this scene). He’d rather bottle up his emotions and distract himself from grief than handle it head on, a tactic that works in the short-term but long term can be greatly damaging.
Much like the deliberate style in which the narrative unfolds, Affleck slowly unravels the nuances and dimensions of Lee’s character. He never has a big emotional outburst (he’s not that kind of person) but by the end he’s left raw and exposed, much more than the apathetic handyman at the beginning. Additionally, he has great chemistry with Hedges. Lee’s relationship with his nephew is authentically messy and rough around the edges. They’ll be fighting one minute and finding common ground the next.
Maybe the most surprising thing about “Manchester” is that it’s funny, sometimes really funny. Lonergan knows that even in serious and tense situations humor can find its way in, as a defense mechanism for social discomfort, or as a coping device. Though Lonergan isn’t careless—he knows when to sprinkle in bits of offbeat humor to ease tension and tempers and when to dial it back (during the bigger dramatic moments, like when we find out what happened to Lee in the past or a present confrontation with Randi) and let the drama/tragedy play out plainly.
“Manchester” isn’t a fun watch by any means, yet it’s always watchable. Multiple times I found myself leaning forward in my seat, biting my nails, unable to move. Lonergan’s morose familial drama is highly absorbing at every turn.