Review: Manchester by the Sea


By Andrew Clarke (@AwaitingAndrew)
Manchester By The Sea is brilliantly written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. This film follows Casey Affleck, in one of the year’s best performances, as Lee Chandler who returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small fishing village in Massachusetts, when his brother, Joe Chandler, passes away. Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), a well-respected man around town, leaves his high-school aged son in the care of Lee in his last will and testament. Lee is rather reluctant to become the guardian as he feels he failed as a father the first time around, with mistakes that have stuck with him to this day.
Manchester By The Sea is a breakthrough film for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Scanning his IMDb page shows that he worked on the screenplay for Scorsese’s 2002 flick Gangs of New York but has only three directing credits and none this substantial. Here, he accompanies a wickedly smart script with some of the year’s best directing. This film is masterfully shot by Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck) and directed by Lonergan. Despite the bleak outlook of the film – in subject matter but this movie also takes place in northeast US wintertime – Lipes leaves me in near awe at the beauty of a great many shots, namely those of the sea.
But the film’s real crowning achievement belongs to Casey Affleck’s heartbreaking performance as Lee Chandler, a man haunted by his past. He remains rather emotionally distant but there are moments that get the better of him. We see through flashbacks in which Lee reminisces on the relationship he had with ex-wife Ricki and how it all went wrong. Writer-director Lonergan trusts the audience here. There is no one scene in which Affleck emotionally spells everything out to us. Instead, scattered throughout the film, we get to witness bits and pieces of his past for ourselves and understand.
When his brother dies and he can escape his past no longer, the past begins to weigh down upon him. He looks for any way to escape the responsibility that has been put in front of him and return to his alternate reality doing janitorial work in Boston. Affleck gives easily one of the best performances of the year. He’s taken home most every Best Actor award thus far, and the hype is quite warranted. While he made a name for himself with critics with his supporting role in The Assassination of Jesse Jackson by the Coward Robert Ford, this should be the film that finally gets him out from his brother’s shadow in the eyes of the public. He’s the frontrunner for the Academy Award, and while everyone nominated for Best Actor is superb, It will be an upset if Affleck doesn’t walk away with a trophy in hand.
A film like Manchester By The Sea is carried by the emotional performance of its lead actor, but it won’t hold quite the same weight if the rest of the cast isn’t up to the task. Thankfully, there are other quite strong performances in this film. Michelle Williams in particular is excellent as Lee Chandler’s ex-wife Ricki. It’s evident in the way she carries herself that she feels remorse for the marriage and its collapse. Her most emotionally heavy scene is unfortunately in-part present in the trailer, but as a whole the encounter with Lee is even more sorrowful once we know the weight of what these two have been through.
While the awards talk has largely gone to these two actors, there’s yet a third well-deserved acting nomination, here in the Best Supporting Actor category. Lucas Hedges gives a breakthrough performance in Manchester By The Sea as Patrick, a newly fatherless high school student and hockey player. It becomes rather apparent that he’s not quite sure how to handle the situation that life has presented him, so he tries to keep his mind off of it with his rather garbage band – who blame the drummer’s tempo for their sound being off – and his two girlfriends – who of course don’t know about each other. The film generally follows Lee, who his nephew won’t open up to. He finally lashes out in a superbly acted scene that takes a moment to realize what’s happening, and then all at once becomes incredibly heartbreaking.
It is never spelled out to the audience exactly why Patrick’s mother left the picture, but there are nods in the script that allow the audience to figure it out. With the loss of his father and uncertainty over who will be his guardian until he comes of age, he reaches out to her, leading to a hilariously awkward scene with her fiancé, played by a well-known actor. But soon thereafter the heartbreak we know returns.
And thus is Manchester By The Sea. It’s not exactly an easy watch. Lonergan’s script presents us with one affliction after another, though there are a surprising amount of laughs to be found in between. The remarkable work by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes is not to be lost here: these three elements fall among the year’s best. But the crowning achievement in Manchester By The Sea is the masterclass in acting from Casey Affleck and his supporting cast.
I give Manchester By The Sea a 9.

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