I’d never heard of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan before Manchester by the Sea, and considering he’d only made two feature films before this one, that’s not as surprising as it might sound at first glance. Well, rest assured, whatever he might have on his docket next, it and he are squarely on my radar now. Manchester by the Sea was basically this year’s little-film-that-could at the Oscars, getting a Best Picture nom as well as accolades for the major players in front of and behind the camera, including a win for lead actor Casey Affleck. I’d seen the trailer and heard the hype coming from Sundance about the film, and actually decided to see it in theaters, so this ended up being my second viewing of the film, and it was no less inspiring and definitely no less heart-rending. Given the restraint that oozes out of every pore of this film, both from the actors and the filmmakers themselves, it’s amazing how affecting this film manages to be.
Lee Chandler lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, largely going through his day-to-day routine being a janitor and handyman at an apartment complex, until he gets a phone call that his brother Joe has passed away from a recurring heart defect. Driving back to his previous hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, he learns through Joe’s will that he has been named guardian of Joe’s now-fatherless 16-year-old, Patrick, and through several circumstances involving the funeral arrangements, Lee is forced to stay in Manchester until the upcoming spring; something that Lee is very wont not to do, due to the circumstances in his past that caused him to leave Manchester behind entirely. The film largely follows the narrative of Lee as he goes through this process pretty much in straight chronology, punctuated by skips backward in time as Lee remembers his brother and his previous life in Manchester, or rather as his memories intrude into his present, almost unwillingly so, from the way the editing of the film is put together. That right there is the beauty of Manchester by the Sea; this is the type of film where the narrative, while being there and solid, is there to hold up the characters, and specifically what they are going through due to the narrative, and it’s through Lonergan’s script and subtle direction, Affleck’s performance, and the way the film is constructed that what the characters are going through is so apparent and effective, even and especially because of all the restraint exhibited by all involved. I’ve been a fan of Casey Affleck’s since his nominated supporting role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and part of the allure of this film to me was the one quote on the poster up there, proclaiming Affleck’s work in this to be the stuff of giants. Needless to say, he does not disappoint; here, Affleck is a simmering pot of emotions, barely perceptible on the surface, but absolutely visible and discernible to us the audience due to Affleck’s skill and talent at making the internals of his character fully observable, despite his character’s tangibly holding himself back from feeling everything his body wants him to feel. Lucas Hedges also surprised and impressed me, especially because I’d previously seen him only in a much more quirky role in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, and here he shows that he’s got a real future ahead of him, if he keeps at it with roles like this one. Rounding out the major players is Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randy, and Williams is good as well (though that’s to be expected of her by now), particularly in the film’s most gutting scene where Randy and Lee meet face-to-face after all they’ve been through, and Randy tries to apologize to Lee for all of it. Many Oscar noms have happened due to one particular scene for the actor, and I’d wager Williams’ nomination for this film is a result of that scene alone.
The thing I love most about this film is that, when you take into account the bits and pieces that make up the narrative and the characters, it really shouldn’t work, at least not as a Hollywood picture. The fact that it does, though, and that it does so beautifully, is in my opinion a testament to how versatile and effective cinema can be as a medium. You don’t need to follow the Hollywood formula to be a good or even great film, and Manchester by the Sea is only the latest example of such a picture that still manages to succeed in the popular and critical circles. I’m really enamored of this film, for many reasons, and that it works almost despite itself is probably one of the major ones. That said, if one doesn’t take to the particular type of entertainment value that this film has to offer, I can see why they would largely want to write this off, though they’d be making a very short-sighted mistake in doing so. This is definitely a film greater than the sum of its parts, and I got just as much out of it this second time around (perhaps more so) than I did the first time I saw it. That’s a great film by my definition.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10