Kenneth Lonergan’s latest drama, Manchester by the Sea, is a profoundly touching and devastating portrayal of the far-reaching effects of grief. Melodramatic at parts, the film is anchored by a powerhouse and Oscar-worthy performance from Casey Affleck, and is the rare familial drama whose power comes from subtlety, rather than from beating its themes on the viewer’s head at every turn.
The film follows the story of Lee Chandler (Affleck), who after the death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), must return to his hometown of Manchester and take care of Joe’s affairs. Lee is shocked to find that he has been made legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee struggles to take care of Patrick while he fights inner problems that are only exacerbated by his return to the town of his youth.
Structured in three acts, the film utilizes flashbacks to shed light on Joe and Lee’s shared past. It is through these flashbacks that we understand why, as director Kenneth Longeran put it best at the NYFF press conference for the film, Joe fights to “get beaten up, rather than to beat someone up.” There’s an inner pain that Joe has hidden inside of him, and through each flashback, the audience more fully understands the underlying causes behind his scarred soul. Adding to the beauty of the landscape is the score and soundtrack utilized in the film. Choir and operatic pieces contribute to an evanescent aura that permeates throughout the film, and bolder, heavier pieces accompany the devastating reveals during the flash-backs.
Surprisingly, the film is also incredibly funny. Awkward situations and encounters lead to memorable moments. Lonergan’s seamless transition from painstaking drama to comedic event, and vice-versa is what sets apart this film from other ambitious dramas. In one beautiful scene, Patrick opens the freezer, and packages of meat fall onto the floor. Seeing this, he begins to have a breakdown and panic attack. Joe attempts to console him, and wisecracks that he should be taken to the hospital if the sight of meat leads to such distress. In an instant, however, the mood of the scene shifts again, when Patrick replies that the idea of his father in a freezer until the warmer weather for his burial scares him.
Casey Affleck has a revelatory turn as Lee, but his performance would mean little without an equally powerful performance from Hedges. Whereas Derek Cianfrance’s similarly structured film The Place Beyond the Pines faltered when the film shifted focus to its two teenage characters to carry the film, Manchester is held afloat by a confident Hedges who is not overshadowed and intimidated by his award-worthy co-star. Michelle Williams, as Joe’s ex-wife, and Affleck share a tender and devastating scene that captures grief in a way that few scenes are able to.
Some may question the use of an introverted, and often cold, character to view the film’s events through. This was a point of concern in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, as many wrongly believed that an indifferent lens led to indifferent or boring storytelling. This hiding of feelings that Affleck portrays, is not hidden at all - it’s worn openly on his face, in his long, lost gazes. He’s delivered incredible performances in films such as Gone Baby Gone, and one of this generation’s most underrated now has an iconic role to call his own.
Manchester by the Sea is a troubling and moving film that continues to linger in my mind. While the film flirts with melodrama, due to a freely moving pace, the film never drags for the entirety of its lengthy run time. Manchester has been keyed as a major player in next year’s Oscar race, and deservedly so. At a time of the year when the film industry becomes oversaturated with redundant, often formulaic biopics, this powerhouse drama is incredibly refreshing, and deserves to be watched, praised, and rewarded.