‘Manchester by the Sea’: An uncompromising masterpiece

Manchester by the Sea doesn’t play by the rules and that is its greatest asset as a film.

Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan(You Can Count on Me) places his characters in a pot and puts the heat on low for his two hour plus film that is equal parts heartbreaking, compassionate, honest, and ruthlessly unconventional. If you want a film with a nicely tightened bow on the final act of the film, go elsewhere. Lonergan cares more about his characters than the audience’s feelings of complacency.

Lee Chandler(Casey Affleck, better than ever) is a sad man and you don’t know why. He’s unclogging toilets and fixing showers while his heart noticeably remains overstuffed and in need of repair. He keeps to himself, drinks like a fish, and gets into random fights that his fists dictate. He is one of those people who doesn’t mind if you place you burden on his shoulders, as long as you don’t ask him about his own. He doesn’t want to talk. As he tells another late in the film, “I can’t beat it.” What it is will break your heart?

When he gets bad news from back home in Manchester by the Sea(a real location off the north shore of Massachusetts), his life is turned upside down. His beloved brother Joe(the extremely reliable Kyle Chandler) has passed away and Lee has to take care of Joe’s son, Patrick(Lucas Hedges). Lee has baggage of his own and there seems to be a thunderstorm following him around a place he once called him.

Flashbacks show Lee in happier times with Randi(Michelle Williams), but that ruptured a long time ago. I won’t tell you anymore because the power in this film is allowing yourself to be blindsided by it.

Lonergan cares more about his characters than the audience’s feelings of complacency.

You don’t know too much too early and Lonergan’s slow burn approach with the details make this film as powerful as it gets. A lesser filmmaker would have showed his hand a lot sooner than Lonergan, and while some may label it depressing, I call it highly ambitious. It’s harder to create realistic pain than melodramatic manipulative joy on film.

If you are starting to hear about this film, it’s for good reason. It rocked Sundance this year and create a bidding war that Amazon eventually won for ten million. It’s the kind of independent film that makes other indie films proud to share the label. It’s fearless in how its 135 minutes are laid out and not one moment is wasted.

The cast is simply phenomenal and it starts and ends with Affleck. Casey is no longer Ben’s younger brother and the 41 year old owes a lot to his elder for casting him in 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. Before that, Affleck was a bit player or friend of the co-lead. A talent screaming to be realized. He has since been nominated for The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford. He stole Out of the Furnace from Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson.

Image result for manchester by the sea
Amazon Studios

He’s capable of commanding the screen and being vulnerable at the same time. He deserves another trip to the Oscars for his work as Lee, the saddest man in Boston. It’s not an easy role to play because the theatrics don’t exist in Lonergan’s writing. It’s all a slow boil that most actors would be swallowed up by. That’s just Affleck’s speed and he thrives in this role. He will make you feel every ounce of pain Lee feels during a scene halfway into the flick.

There’s charm and optimism in the film, so don’t think it’s all downer blues. Affleck and Hedges(a bright newcomer) have great chemistry as two men getting to know each other via tragedy. It’s not forced, sappy, or overdone by the duo. They knock it out of the park.

Williams is perfectly cast as a woman held together by emotional duck tape. The actress doesn’t work enough and can handle these tough roles. Chandler may be Coach Taylor to most people but he’s also a well versed performer who doesn’t need the spotlight to make a dent. Remember his work in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street? He owned those scenes with Leo DiCaprio. Here, he anchors the flashback scenes that feel so well and provoke so much thought.

Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, and Heather Burns are also well cast in a group that doesn’t miss. Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick have brief if meaningful roles that don’t teeter towards cardboard performances. Lonergan doesn’t waste a single note.

The scenery is beautiful. Lonergan turns it into a supporting character instead of a mere backdrop. The shore line and small towns mimic the characters plight and the whole shade of grey on the visuals plays well into the story. Everything is real and sharp.

If you have siblings, this film will rightfully knock you down and instead of picking you up, it will leave you on the ground for a bit. Again, it’s easier to make a nice sweet film than a brutally honest one.

Manchester by the Sea succeeds by letting it sink in and hurt. It’s an extremely affecting and well done film that needs to be seen. If you aren’t in the mood for Marvel doctors, check out this indie instead. It won’t cheat you out of your time or money.

The peaceful ending is a gem. It doesn’t do too much or leave anything hanging. It honors the characters. The best directors care most about their characters to make it all land just right. If they mishandle them, the overall effect of the film is lost.

Don’t pass up a trip to Manchester by the Sea. It’s worth every penny for the adults brief enough to ride along its shores.


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