DIR: Kenneth Lonergan • WRI: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks • PRO: Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh • DOP: Jody Lee Lipes • ED: Jennifer Lame • DES: Ruth De Jong • MUS: Lesley Barber • CAST: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Manchester by the Sea does not pretend to offer any easy answers; indeed, one of the film’s strongest aspects is its refusal to sentimentalise the aftermath of trauma. Redemption can’t be found in the warm embrace of family or seeking self-betterment – not here, anyway. A quiet, thoughtful film meditating on the question of loss and those death leaves behind, director Kenneth Lonergan delivers a deeply humane portrayal of grief and those who choose to let it define them.
Janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) leads an isolated life, unplugging drains, shovelling snow, fixing faucets, disposing of old furniture, swearing at tenants, and getting into fights at bars. After the death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), from congenital heart disease, Lee is shocked to find himself named the guardian of his sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Forced to confront the family and hometown he had fled following an unspeakable tragedy, Lee struggles to find his place in a world he is not yet ready to fully re-enter. Locals whisper rumours behind his back and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), has moved on with her life, while he remains stubbornly static in his grief. Patrick poses as his uncle’s antithesis, handling the loss of his father by hanging out with friends, practicing with his basement band, playing on his school’s sports team and dating girls. Whereas Patrick embraces life in response to death, Lee merely seeks out a different kind of death. They each are all the other has left but, despite both their desire to reach a place of mutual understanding, catharsis lays just beyond their reach.
The film is beautifully shot, utilising its seaside town setting to combine the thematic and visual in a manner that is complimentary rather than contrived. The harsh winter is not just pathetic fallacy, it has real, tangible effects on the characters’ lives, from their lack of suitable clothing to the small matter of frozen ground preventing the burial of the dearly departed. The town of Manchester-by-the-sea may look quaint, but its inhabitants have grit. The film’s score, on the other hand, suffers from Lonergan’s overreliance on it to convey emotion, oversaturating scenes with orchestration when silence would have been more effective. At best it’s mildly annoying, at worst it’s hugely distracting. The film also has some pacing problems. The final thirty minutes or so simply feel like a rehash of the prior hour and a half, failing to stick the landing in a way that would do justice to the earlier parts of the film.
All the cast deliver strong performances, in particular Affleck and Hedges. Lee’s withdrawn manner and terse dialogue tell of an unspoken horror. His demons not only haunt him, he invites them in, languishing with them in his perpetual self-hatred. When the source of this pain is eventually revealed to the audience, the character’s actions and attitude are suddenly understandable, if not acceptable. Affleck plays this role well, perhaps too well. At times Lee’s unwillingness to engage with those around him creates a stilted experience for the audience, in the character’s own words he just ‘can’t break it’ and he holds back the audience along with him. Michelle Williams has been garnering praise for her performance, which is perhaps why it came across as rather a let-down. Not only is her screen time quite limited, her performance, though solid, is hardly a stretch for an actress with such a strong cinematic resume. In a year that was thin on the ground for good female roles, however, can anyone blame reviewers for grasping at straws?
Overall, Manchester by the Sea is a moving film that refuses to compromise its unflinching examination of unrelenting grief to pander to its ‘feel-good’ counterparts. You won’t leave the cinema feeling happy, but you will leave having felt something profound.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Manchester by the Sea is released 13th January 2017