Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest, the quiet family melodrama, ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ may be the most devastating film to receive awards attention this year. Buoyed by an incredible, understated performance by Casey Affleck, surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, and featuring a unique flashback structure, it’s impossible to argue its’ artistic merit. From an entertainment perspective, this film must be taken with a major degree of caution. Despite balancing it’s extremely dark and somber plot threads with some truly funny lines and situations, the movie is a very difficult one to experience.
The basic plot involves the humble existence of main character Lee Chandler (Affleck in a role that he completely inhabits and should win him multiple awards), a handyman for an apartment complex in Boston, MA, drudging through life until he receives word of a situation that sends him back to his sleepy New England hometown of Manchester, a shore village where everyone knows everyone’s business. The call is to inform Lee that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, a significant presence in flashbacks) has succumbed to the heart disease that has plagued him, now leaving behind a teenage son who he’d been raising on his own since his alcoholic wife left years before. If the grim proceedings and droll process of dealing with the minutia that follows as a sole next of kin weren’t enough, the film starts revealing the even more tragic backstory that has left Lee a shell of what he once was. It’s here, in these uniquely flowing flashbacks, shown seamlessly as if they are Lee’s recollections, that the true scope and power of this piece of work (and Affleck’s layered performance) reveal themselves.
It’s no surprise that ‘Manchester’ evokes a literary backbone in its’ exploration of coping with grief and tragedy, as Lonergan is a playwright who writes and directs as opposed to the other way around. He meticulously places each line of dialogue and frame of activity with purpose and symbolism (pay close attention to the figurative and literal ‘cell’ Lee builds in self-imposed imprisonment). The positioning of the camera in relation to the actors, the props they interact with, all serve to place them firmly in a lived-in environment that heightens the sense that these are real people dealing with real issues. It’s hard to delve deeper into the performances of the supporting actors who play Lee’s nephew Patrick (newcomer Lucas Hedges) and ex-wife Randi (Michelle Wiliams) without spoiling the plot, but rest assured they each have scenes of raw power that deliver additional emotional punches at various points in the narrative. While ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is tough to wade into, once one is submerged into its’ depths of human suffering and little triumphs of hope, it is impossible not to appreciate the talent, craft and artistry on screen . . .
Written & Directed By: Kenneth Lonergan
Running Time: 137 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A