Manchester by the Sea is the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a man who has experienced loss in a nearly unimaginable way. At the film’s opening, Lee is living in Boston working as a maintenance man for several apartment complexes where he is mostly unappreciated. His is a solitary life, typically avoiding human contact and interaction as much as possible. One routine day, Lee receives a call he appears to be both expecting and dreading—his brother, a man he loved, has passed.
As Lee makes his way to Manchester, the town he grew up in with his family, he reminiscences about his brother and more broadly about his life before Boston. Through a series of flashbacks, the audience begins to learn about the events that have made Lee the way he is today. But Lee is about to learn that a whole new chapter in his life is beginning whether he likes it or not—his brother upon passing named Lee the legal guardian of his young adult son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a role Lee is ill-prepared for.
What works in Manchester by the Sea are the performances, the raw emotion, the setting, and the astute way writer/director Kenneth Lonergan intertwines those three particular elements. To begin, this is clearly Affleck’s movie and his performance is haunting and melancholic. Affleck carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, struggling to live every second of his life, and his actions are both somehow deliberate and aimless at the same time. While Affleck has showcased his numerous talents in previous films, Manchester by the Sea is unequivocally the pinnacle of his work to date.
Manchester-by-the-Sea is a real town of roughly 5,000 on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, and while the movie only uses principle photography to portray the chilly town, the locale is almost a supporting character in the film. The bleak and unforgiving setting during the apex of winter serves as proxy for the turmoil that Lee’s character constantly battles with. It is also pristine and gorgeous, almost frustratingly so. Perhaps the best example of how Lonergan combines these swirling characteristics is a sequence where Lee moves into his brother’s old bedroom. He gazes out the window onto a simply gorgeous view—the near-frozen water barely rippling against the docks in the distance; the picturesque scene framed by quaint houses bursting with character. Lee’s response to such beauty and grace is to punch the glass window forcibly, severely damaging his hand.
While Manchester by the Sea is full of exceptional performances, interested patrons must be forewarned of the level of drama contained between the credits. Manchester by the Sea is a film one appreciates, not enjoys. In fact, one may make the recommendation to intentionally schedule something joyous to follow after a viewing, if only to somewhat balance out the morose experience.
Manchester by the Sea is emotional journey through despair that portrays grief in an honest and powerful way. While the subject matter may make many uncomfortable, the superb writing, directing, and performances, especially from Affleck, make Manchester by the Sea one of 2016’s best films.
Photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions