MOVIE REVIEW: Manchester by the Sea



There is an unmistakable layer of “people-watching” cinema brings to its artistic atmosphere and aesthetic.  An omnipresent camera grants private points-of-view, shines light on secrets, and challenges the observational skills of the audience.  Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” introduces the wearisome life of one solitary man and proceeds to unearth the repressed sorrow and unspoken emotions that lie underneath his mundane exterior.  The most praiseworthy character-driven films have the patience to cultivate its truths with substance and the wisdom to never give you everything.  Lonergan’s near-perfect jewel is a new exemplar of such qualities and one of the finest films of 2016.

The despondent and tragic man in question is Lee Chandler, an apartment handyman and janitor in the wintery Quincy neighborhood of Boston, played by Casey Affleck.  An inescapable misery surrounds his lowly routine and hermitic lifestyle, where Lee seems incapable of responding to women and only flashes liveliness when provoked into frustrated verbal outbursts or drunken fisticuffs.  Lee’s zoned out daydreams recall happier days in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea on the Cape Ann coast.  He was a father of three with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), the amenable younger brother of Joe (Kyle Chandler), and the energetic uncle to Joe’s son Patrick.  The greatest hits there surrounded quality time on Joe’s boat crushing beers, fishing the bay, and shooting the shit.

Those memories were years ago now and unseen events suggest that there is a reason Lee is alone and doesn’t call Manchester home anymore.  When Joe dies unexpectedly, Lee is forced to return to his old stomping grounds to handle his brother’s affairs, including assuming guardianship of the now-16-year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Unprepared for and strained by these new responsibilities, Lee’s disquiet increases and the Manchester homecoming multiples the painful memories of remorse and loss he left behind.

There is an inherent candor flowing through “Manchester by the Sea.”  This is Bostonian New England where the people are bad Catholics and even worse communicators, armed with a brogue of accepted and expected profanity to answer any situation.  Inflamed reactions and mere looks morph in arguments at the drop of an empty beer bottle.  No one is spared, regardless of gender or age, creating a layer of combative and razzing humor permeating the gloom.

The frankness of the characters never lampoons into stereotypes.  Instead, it is a transparent gloss covering the more substantial and heart-rending bedrock.  Every minute of “Manchester by the Sea” is built on an unflinching honesty to convey realistic emotions and natural behaviors.  The fullest extent can be seen in the acting of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges and how Kenneth Lonergan writes their characters.

In different hands and circumstances, the character of Lee could have slid into a woe-is-me territory of unwarranted depression.  Patrick could have represented a typical whiny and petulant Millennial teen.  Instead, Lee’s revealed history justifies the crushing heartache shouldered by Affleck’s uneasy body language, weary speech, and frozen moments of paused reflection, and Hedges plays a confident and sturdy Patrick free of pouty cliches.  Both gentlemen earn your affinity and empathy to towering degrees.

Stridently carrying this film, Casey Affleck steps forward with the top showing of his career, superior to “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”  Not to be undone even in limited scenes, Michelle Williams delivers immense moments of anguish and regret, easily worth what would be her fourth Academy Award nomination.  Avoiding each other for the entire film, the titanic final scene Lee and Randi share together will shatter your soul to pieces.

As aforementioned, “Manchester by the Sea” possesses a wisdom and patience to let moments breathe and avoid confessing every detail.  Much like Jeff Nichols’s recent historical drama “Loving,” this film abstains from rousing soliloquies and soapboxes when you think they are coming, favoring understated power and a trust in the actors.  To an extraordinarily unique effect, several crucial revelations and montage moments are set to an overture of hymnal sonatas and symphonies that overtake and mask the dialogue in volume, leaving you with only expressions and movement to convey the drama.  Scenes like those in “Manchester by the Sea” thrust you back to the challenge of people-watching.  This heartfelt tone creates a moving and unforgettable movie experience like few others this year.

LESSON #1: THE AFTERMATH OF SURVIVOR’S GUILT-- Lee is weathering tragedy in his past and now even more of it in his present.  He is a changed man beset but guilt.  That grief has derailed his life and drained his spirit and capacity for happiness or even humanity.

LESSON #2: WHEN YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN-- It is not uncommon for people to associate catastrophes and hardships with their locations of occurrence, where proximity to that place triggers the troublesome reminders.  For Lee, that is the entirety of his hometown and being there again is torturous to no end.  

LESSON #3: THE BROKEN HEARTS THAT CANNOT BE HEALED-- All of the malaise and excruciating agony held by the characters in this film stems from damage that cannot be corrected.  In a culture of pride where people do not share or handle their feelings with others, it’s a big step when characters here admit defeat and recognize a broken heart, making some coping possible.