Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges
Kenneth Lonergan isn’t in much of a rush. His latest film is just the second he’s directed in the decade and a half since acclaimed debut You Can Count on Me. Manchester by the Sea, his excellently performed and surprisingly warm study of loss, also has the habit of taking its time. It clocks in at 135 minutes, with about as much plot as some filmmakers could fit in an hour. The drama unfolds in patient scenes filled with both well-crafted dialogue and wordless soul-searching. Yet in the whole film, there’s not one moment for which you want to look away. We witness love, pain, friendship and extreme emotional suffering, but no matter how difficult it gets we cannot help but watch.
The film’s focus is on Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a brooding janitor who lives in a one-room apartment and picks meaningless fights to liven up his monotonous routine. Persistently pissed off by his clients, he appears to have resigned himself to a life void of genuine happiness. Affleck portrays Lee as having chosen a life shielded from human connection or any hope of achieving anything that might put the safe boredom of his life at risk. It’s clear from the start that this is a man who’s been struck down by guilt and tragedy. Lee is wrenched away from this life by yet more tragedy, but one that might just end up saving him. After his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, Lee is forced back to his eponymous hometown and unexpectedly landed with the custody of his nephew Patrick. What follows is a slow building of a relationship between Lee and Patrick, both dealing in their separate ways with the loss that is hanging over them. Both Affleck and newcomer Lucas Hedges play these scenes excellently, creating an atmosphere of resentment suffused with genuine affection, an affection they both need at this time in their lives.
While the scenes between Lee and Patrick are some of the best parts of the film, Lonergan makes sure that this is Lee’s story. Affleck earns the awards buzz that has been circling him since Venice with some great work in several key flashback scenes. They let us glimpse the old Lee and his life with Michelle Williams’ Randi, while introducing an element of mystery as to what changed his life so radically. They also help to put the tragedy in perspective by showing us Joe’s diagnosis with heart disease years before it killed him. This introduces the interesting theme of dealing with a death that you know is coming. Perhaps it would have been interesting to see Lonergan explore this more, yet the rest of the film feels so perfectly balanced and Hedges conveys the subdued grief his prior knowledge might have brought about so well that maybe it wasn’t needed after all.
The most important flashback, however, is a crucial turning point for the film. It is a moment of extreme tragedy on which the whole film rests. In lesser hands it may have seemed sensationalist or lost its shock value from the sense of foreboding that preceded it. Here, however, it is perfectly handled, prompting its audience to question the characters, share in their pain and get drawn even closer into the film’s incredibly tight grip.
It is a fantastic piece of filmmaking and the rest of the film, albeit in a much less eye-catching way, manages to match it. Throughout all the grief and guilt there is growth for Lee. Tragedy is a terrible thing and, as the film subtly points out, it happens to too many of us to mention, but sometimes it can be the catalyst for change. Redemption is perhaps what Manchester by the Sea is really about at the end of it all; beyond the family ties and close bonds, it is a film about one man at war with himself and the world. Whether he wins is unclear, but it’s riveting to watch him fight. Lee is an already compelling character and is made more so by Affleck; with the help of his standout performance, Kenneth Lonergan has returned on superb form. For the sake of tender, beautiful and heartbreaking cinema, you better hope he doesn’t take so long next time.