Well, it’s time to get caught up. Amid the holiday rush, Manchester by the Sea delivers a thoughtful and heartfelt look at one man’s struggle to come to terms with loss and move forward with his life. The story follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) returning to his hometown following his brother’s death. After being granted guardianship of his nephew, he is confronted by his past and forced to examine the circumstances which led him away from his home.
Director Kenneth Lonergan’s third effort is certainly his best. His skill as director is bolstered by his proficiency as a screenwriter and the marriage of the two played out beautifully in this film. The screenplay for Manchester by the Sea is certainly one of its strongest assets, providing a steady balance between humor and pain. A realistic look at the death of a loved one and all the intricate pain that comes along with it. The dialogue has a lot of heart, even the seemingly innocuous bits. Having dealt with plenty of loss in my own life, I can say Lonergan did a great job capturing the tumultuous and complex fabric of grief and how we deal with it.
The cinematography was masterful in its simplicity. In his highest profile project, Jody Lee Lipes did a marvelous job letting the environment speak for itself, taking full advantage of the architecture and weather in the northeast. The cold was an invisible, ever-present character throughout the film. Shaping the characters who live within. The visual storytelling was very self sufficient early on. Many of the film’s early scenes could communicate tone and context without the help of dialogue. Lipes and Lonergan clearly had a coherent vision for this project, working exceedingly well together. I expect them to work together again shortly as they will undoubtedly be receiving offers.
For all the great work behind the camera, the majority of the film’s strength still resides in the hands of the cast. Affleck delivered (probably) the best and most important performance of his blossoming career. Truly exceptional and star-making. A more advanced extension of a charcter type he’d done well with in the past. He really caught my attention playing quiet, but internally distraught characters in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Out of the Furnace (2013). He harnessed something from all those characters and himself, building a character timbre uniquely his own. Loyal, tough, honest and hardworking. Emblematic of Boston. Any desire on his part to remain out of the public spotlight will likely end with 2016.
Michelle Williams was painfully brilliant on several occasions throughout the film, although she isn’t what I would describe as a main character. Her screen time and dialogue are not central to the movie like the trailer might suggest, but she did some really great work nonetheless. She played Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, displaying a wide range of emotion in its often painful depths. Their chemistry together was very natural, both in joy and pain, making for an authentic atmosphere. She’s always had a kind of stoic fragility that served her well. This performance drew on a pain that is deeper. Guttural. It would be surprising if she didn’t land leading roles for at least the next year or so.
Lucas Hedges was integral to the film’s success and delivered a breakthrough performance as Lee’s nephew Patrick. His two biggest projects prior were Wes Anderson movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Although Hedges wasn’t a central character in either of those, it’s clear why Anderson liked him. He has a unique sense of subtle comedic timing. Bolstered by a stellar script, the young man took full advantage of the opportunity and carried a complex character steeped with a sense of wisdom beyond his years. I feel like I need to mention C.J. Wilson. He delivered a surprisingly strong performance as George, a friend of the Chandlers doing his best to help in their greatest time of need. It wasn’t the kind of performance where he’s what you remember from the film, it’s more under the radar. However, it was a subtle and important character that lent a lot of texture to the story and the film.
It is difficult to think of anything negative to say about this movie. Quality directing and cinematography created a visually appealing film. A strong screenplay and some talented actors made it compelling to watch. Lesley Barber added a nice original score to the soundtrack and the music supervision crafted character even when nobody was on screen. Everything else was seamless, allowing the strengths to stand out. It will certainly be a favorite to win many of the awards for which it is nominated including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actress.
The only thing that bothered me was what seemed to be a lack of closure between Lee and Randi. Given the rift between them and the plot fulcrum which divided them it would have been nice to see more in the way of reconciliation. So much emotion was on the table, it was heavy on the heart and the tongue. I wasn’t expecting or hoping for a happy ending, but I would have liked to see more from those two characters.
Recommendation: This movie isn’t for the young, or the faint of heart. It’s a movie for adults and more specifically for those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one. The realistic approach is as heartfelt as it is heartbreaking. That’s not for everyone. If you’re a film student or movie aficionado, this movie is worth it just for the technique.