Manchester by the Sea is a movie about death, and more specifically, it's a movie about grief. With that said, you're probably wondering what all the hubbub is about. After all, there are plenty of movies that deal with tragedy and loss each and every year. What makes this one different? Why have critics given Manchester by the Sea such a warm reception, hailing it as a masterpiece and one of the best films of the year? It's because the film doesn't give easy answers. It doesn't treat grief or loss as a one-way street, something that continually improves as time goes on. Sometimes, it's stagnant, filling a permanent hole in the soul of a person. There isn't always a happy ending and you don't always get over it. Grief can defeat a person.
Lee Chandler, played by the brilliant Casey Affleck, has been defeated by grief. Something has happened to him that cannot be undone, and it haunts him throughout every waking moment of his life. This pain has become a permanent part of his identity, and it has left a mark on his heart. Lee isn't depressed or mentally troubled- he's just a shell of who he used to be, going about his business with the hope of ignoring the pain of his past. When we find him at the start of the movie, he's working as a janitor and a handyman in a neighborhood in Boston. He's beloved by some customers and hated by others, who often find themselves at the mercy of his hot temper. He lives in a one-room apartment, goes to the bar on weekend nights, and keeps to himself. One day, he gets a call- his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), is in the hospital and things aren't looking good. He heads right up to Manchester, but by the time he gets there, Joe has passed away. Lee is devastated by the loss of his brother, and he quickly tries to find a way to put all the pieces together.
Things get more complicated when Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe's teenage son, enters the mix. Lee emerges as his caretaker for the weekend, buying him food and driving him to school as the young man deals with the death of his father. But soon, Lee learns that Joe listed him as Patrick's legal guardian, leaving him money to relocate to Manchester and care for Patrick until he's able to live on his own. With only a small room and a menial job, clearly Lee doesn't have much in Boston. On the other hand, Patrick is in a band, plays for a hockey team, has plenty of friends, and several relationships. It would only make sense for Lee to move to Manchester, right? Unfortunately, things just aren't that simple for Lee. Through the course of a narrative that flows back and forth through time, the tragedies of Lee's life are revealed and the true pain that lies beneath is exposed in a melancholy, occasionally funny odyssey of life and death.
As great as the performances are in Manchester, much of the credit has to go to Kenneth Lonergan, who has crafted something haunting, tragic, and memorable with his portrait of a crumbling family. Lonergan stages Manchester like a series of memories, fleeting glimpses of the past and present swirling in a rapid tornado of emotional hardship. The editing by Jennifer Lame is jarring and rough, with plenty of quick cuts that hop between Lee's calamitous past and his current predicament. Very few scenes operate with any sort of poetry or flow, which seems like Lonergan's main strategy. His goal is to create a gruff, direct movie that fits the world that his characters live in. There are no moments in Manchester by the Sea that are reaching out to the audience, encouraging them to cry. Lonergan simply presents you with a dark, miserable scenario, and he lets you respond accordingly.
By never persistently attempting to tug on the heartstrings of the audience, Lonergan has created a movie that will slowly sink in and rock your core. Manchester by the Sea never reaches for cheap sentimentality or overdone scenes of emotion. It simmers for over 90 minutes, with only a few moments that hit square in the heart. When everything begins to boil over in the final act, I didn't start bawling, nor did I really even shed a tear. I just felt a sense of quiet devastation. Manchester by the Sea is a movie that crushes you, an agonizing experience that slowly beats you down with its astonishing sense of poignant truth. Many have been pointing to a specific third act scene as the time that Manchester finally opens up, but I just don't see it. Even if there's crying or screaming or emotional breakdowns involved, the scenes are quiet and subdued. There's never a true moment of catharsis, because there is no moment where the characters get better. This is a movie about grief that can't be healed, problems that can't be solved, the tragedy of the past that can't be undone. There is no happy ending in sight.
The performances in Manchester by the Sea have been garnering quite a bit of attention, and with good reason. There are some phenomenal turns in this film, including a brilliant, career-best performance from Casey Affleck. On the surface, it seems like it would be tough to make Lee Chandler an interesting or likable character. After all, he's a shell of a human being by the time that we might him. He's quiet and plainly spoken unless he's punching people at bars, but the loss of his brother begins to create a few small cracks in the armor that he's created. Affleck never has a big "Oscar moment," which would be defined as a scene where he just starts breaking down crying and screaming about everything wrong in his life. Instead, he has several flashes of genius, scenes where he manages to convey everything and nothing at the same time. Affleck does so much with just a glance, a line of dialogue, the movement of his body. It's a subtle performance, but Affleck is magnificent in a very unique way.
When the film premiered at Sundance, Michelle Williams also immediately grabbed Oscar buzz for her performance as Randi Chandler, a woman who has been wrecked by grief and handled it in her own distinct way. Williams doesn't have a whole lot of screen time, but she makes an impression. I feel like there's an entirely different film that could be centered around Randi's perspective, and while I sincerely doubt that we'll ever get a Manchester by the Sea Cinematic Universe, the idea proves that Williams truly worked wonders with the character. The final member of Manchester's trio is newcomer Lucas Hedges, who has been the film's breakout star. Hedges is a dynamic, commanding screen presence, a young actor who feels like a perfect fit in Lonergan's universe of authenticity. Hedges handles a heavy role with ease, and it's a testament to Lonergan's masterful screenplay that each member of the central cast is tasked with handling grief in their own specific, intense way.
As I was watching Manchester by the Sea, one of the things that popped into my head was "It's this year's Spotlight." For most of its runtime, it's an impeccably made movie, one that feels carefully woven by a master storyteller. The dialogue pops off the screen, the characters are endlessly fascinating, and the mystery and tragedy of the narrative keeps you engaged in the story. But as Manchester moved forward, there were various times where the film began to lose my interest. As it quickly becomes clear that there's no real end point in sight, it begins to feel like Lonergan is just killing time and prolonging the story for no real reason. Look, I understand the main thematic point of the movie- you can't always get over grief. Death and loss have beaten Lee Chandler, and no weight of responsibility or burst of happiness will ever change that.
However, after two incredibly effective, beautifully crafted acts, Manchester by the Sea simply begins to lose a little bit of steam. The ending is incredibly effective, and it hits all of the beats that Lonergan needs to wrap up his story. But there's a good chunk of time before that happens where things get dragged out, where storylines are introduced that aren't resolved all that well. There's a strange little subplot involving Patrick's estranged mother and her new husband (played by Matthew Broderick, oddly enough) that doesn't really go anywhere, and some of the other scenes involving fellow townspeople that feel extraneous. Lonergan's story concludes in a moving way that hits like a punch in the gut. This movie is devastating, no two ways about it. But it runs at 138 minutes in length, and I think that if you shaved 20 minutes off that, you'd have a movie that was close to perfect. In its current shape, Manchester by the Sea just doesn't quite hit masterpiece status.
Nonetheless, there's a reason that this is one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Manchester by the Sea is a remarkable, gripping film, one that feels like a major breakthrough for Affleck, Lonergan, and Hedges. It's a film marred by death and misery, but it's touching, funny, and tender at times, and even though there's clearly no happy ending, by no means is Manchester a total downer. It's a movie so real that it certainly doesn't work as escapist entertainment, so if you're looking for that, head down to the theater playing La La Land. But for those looking for a rough, serious, contemplative film during the holiday season, Manchester by the Sea is probably your best bet. It may fall just short of perfection, but Lonergan's film is still an impressive, commendable achievement in its own right.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.6/10)
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