The depth of a tragedy is determined by the depth of its characters, and in his third feature in 16 years, Kenneth Lonergan digs deep, plumbing boundless spectrums of sadness, humor, rage, and tenderness to create a portrait of heartbreak that is as lyrically beautiful as it is intensely human. The film shares its bones with a dozen other familiar tales of regret and redemption. Small towns with long memories all have, at their heart, a narrative well from which these New England tragedies flow. But Lonergan’s film is much more than just a variation on a theme, elevating formula into mythology. Manchester by the Sea is an American tragedy of the highest order, and quite possibly the best film of the year.
Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jessie James) stars as Lee Chandler, an apartment janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts whose solitary and routine life is shattered when he discovers that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, Zero Dark Thirty) has died suddenly, sending him home to the small town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. Joe’s alcoholic wife (Gretchen Mol, Boardwalk Empire) left long ago, leaving Lee as the legal guardian of his brother’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom), a sixteen-year-old with two girlfriends, a band, and a spot on the hockey team. As Lee makes arrangements for his brother’s funeral and his nephew’s future, it becomes clear that this new tragedy has torn open old wounds in the town.
The setup may sound familiar; the film shares its bones with a bevy of other dramedies that fit the ‘families brought together by death’ mold. Manchester by the Sea doesn’t so much break new ground, as it does perfect a common recipe. Lonergan’s script resists all temptation to interweave narratives into some grander tapestry, choosing instead to follow the threads of family tragedy to where they fray. This isn’t a film of brash confrontations and climaxes. The film concerns itself with smaller moments – Lee forgetting where he parked his car; arguing costs with funeral homes. Like Lee, the film is concern primarily with logistics, because Lonergan knows you don’t need to inject artificial heartbreak into a world whose fragmented pieces refuse to fit together.
Casey Affleck weights the film down with a career defining performance as Lee Chandler. When we first meet Lee, he is a man bent by the weight of life beyond the point of breaking. Affleck’s performances have always been imbued with impressive depth, but here his work is master class. The film employs some artfully placed flashbacks to juxtapose Lee’s hollowed out present with his past in Manchester, where he lived with his then-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine) giving us a chance to feel the scope the tragedy that’s befallen this man. Chandler was a role originally meant for Matt Damon, who produces, before scheduling conflicts left the role open for Casey Affleck. The stars of Hollywood move in mysterious ways, but they aligned here to create one of recent cinema’s most stirring performances.
Manchester by the Sea is a rare film in that its script is filled with deeply felt characters brought to life by nearly flawless casting. These are people who grieve and laugh and err, not in ways that serve the plot, but in ways that feel entirely human. Lucas Hedges balances acidic wit with naïveté in a career launching performance as Patrick, providing some of the film’s funniest and most heart wrenching moments. Michelle Williams is electric as Lee’s ex-wife. The two share the screen for a precious few minutes, but they are some of the most emotionally raw minutes in any film.
This is Kenneth Lonergan’s third film, after the promising You Can Count On Me, and the troubled passion project Margaret, and it’s by far his most impressive effort to date. This is a film that cuts to the bone, and Lonergan has the steady hand to drive it in. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck) beautifully captures the snow crusted New England landscape and the film breathes to the delicate sounds of Lesley Barber’s score. Manchester by the Sea is truly a testament to the power of cinema made by artists at the top of their game.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Manchester by the Sea wields a raw, emotional power that few films could dream of conjuring. The film embodies an honesty that rarely survives the journey from the page to the screen. Kenneth Lonergan has created a stirring vision of sorrow and love that is an instant classic. It simply needs to be seen.