Manchester by the Sea will restore your faith in the movies.
New England’s stark landscapes, especially in winter, have been used before to reflect the bleak interior lives of a film’s characters. In Todd Field’s masterful In the Bedroom, a small town in Maine is host to a pair of grieving parents who conspire to kill their son’s murderer. Even action movies such as The Perfect Storm use this rough scrabble, rain-soaked milieu to impart a sense of atmosphere. In Kenneth Lonergan’s, Manchester by the Sea, the titular town, picturesque by many standards, adopts the misery and despair that plague its characters, transforming into a funereal landscape of quiet desolation.
Lonergan, the poet of everyday lives, is no stranger to misery. His first film, You Can Count on Me (2000), was an ardently intimate affair featuring some fine acting from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as an estranged brother and sister. His second feature, Margaret, is the stuff of legends, delayed for years following lawsuits and truncated versions that defied the director’s wishes. Despite the drama surrounding Margaret, Lonergan has persevered and created Manchester by the Sea, a tour de force drama that stands not only as his best film but one of the greatest releases of the year.
In what may be the performance of his career, Casey Affleck plays Lee, a Boston handyman who fills his days doing menial repairs and his nights getting into drunken fights in bars. Anger fills Lee as we watch him fix toilets, shovel snow and push back when unthankful residents give him shit about leaking showers. Soon enough, Lee receives a fateful phone call. His brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died, and Lee must go to Manchester by the Sea to put his affairs in order. Even though Joe’s death was expected – he had been dealing with a heart affliction for years – the loss casts a pall over the film, one that Lee already echoes in his devastated emotional state.
With no one but Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), left in Manchester by the Sea, it becomes Lee’s responsibility to deal with his brother’s body, along with the house and boat he has left behind. The walled-off Lee keeps his emotions under wraps, holding Patrick at arm’s length rather than embracing him. Is this distance your typical Yankee resolve or is there something darker eating away at Lee? Things come to a head when Lee learns that Joe intended him to become Patrick’s guardian upon his death. Lee wants nothing more than to get away from Manchester by the Sea and get back to his one-room basement efficiency in Boston.
But why? Why does Lee hate this picturesque little town so much? The answer to that question lies at the center of Lonergan’s rich character study, a portrait painted with the peccadilloes of fate and tragedy. In his carefully constructed script, Lonergan slowly exposes Lee’s backstory, his relationships with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), Joe, Patrick as a child and Joe’s alcoholic ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol). It’s a sweeping story, one filled with heartbreak. It may sound as if Lee and his family are cursed, but Lonergan avoids melodrama here and instead presents us a human portrait of loss, one that is both funny and sad as hell.
Although all of Lonergan’s players are spot-on, Affleck delivers on the promise that we’ve seen in his prior work, from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to The Killer Inside Me. His Lee is a man in self-exile, cut off from the world, inured to avoid any sort of emotion. Affleck reaches deep into the character, portraying him as sympathetic, yet distant. Something lurks beneath the surface, something that Affleck connects with and understands. In flashbacks, we see that Lee was once lovable, even goofy.
Patrick once knew this other side of Lee, but, now that they have both been hardened by loss, connecting after Joe’s death is nearly impossible. In many ways, Patrick is coping better with his father’s death than Lee is. In a remarkable performance, Hedges plays Patrick as a normal teenage boy, interested in hockey, girls and music. To Patrick, Lee represents a bigger threat to his existence than the death of his father. Lee has no interest in remaining in Manchester by the Sea. He wants to take Patrick and go back to Boston. The rapport between the actors is genuine. There is a mutual appreciation between both men, but both are now thrust in a situation ideal for neither.
Manchester by the Sea is a deep character study about men who refuse to connect with their emotions. Lonergan knows when to avoid melodrama and even though some terrible things happen in the film, they are never cloying or over-the-top. Affleck and Williams share a few devastating scenes together that prove they are some of the best actors of their generation currently working. This is the total package, a film that is alive, humorous and rich, one that deserves repeated viewings and a place in the canon of great American cinema. Manchester by the Sea will restore your faith in the movies. It is a must-see.