Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges, and Matthew Broderick
Tragedy changes people. It takes a piece of a person, never completely making them whole again. The saying “time heals all wounds” is true, however wounds leave scars, a life long reminder of the pain that you once felt. Kenneth Lonergan, a writer who’s films have a specific and special way of portraying death and the after effects it leaves on a person, manufactures his newest film “Manchester by the Sea” in a lingering fog of a tragedy.
Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living near Boston. He does odd jobs like fixing faucets, shoveling snowy sidewalks, and plunging clogged toilets; but something is different about Lee, you can feel the frustration and anger in his every motion and see pain and despair behind his eyes. Lee receives an unexpected phone call from his hometown, his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from congestive heart failure. Lee quickly returns to his hometown to handle arrangements but also to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
“Manchester by the Sea” is about people and the pains of death. Mr. Lonergan handles this aspect deftly and delicately, painting a portrait of ordinary people living in a small town dealing with death in a personal and many times genuine way. Life still moves forward without pause for compassion, little things like dinner still needing to be cooked, preparing for snow that is still going to fall, and partaking in the painstaking process of grieving. It’s uncomfortable to watch yet fascinating to see the process so meticulously staged by such a skillful writer. There is more going on still, the aspect of Joe’s death is just one component. Lee has a history in this small New England town, people recognize him and whisper condemningly in his direction.
The focus of Lee’s agony is revealed through flashbacks about half way through the film and the result is heart breaking. How do you deal with such immense tragedy? That’s the question that continues throughout the remainder of the film and is displayed through a man still dealing with the affects of death from the past and forced to handle it again in the present. You are offered two separate versions of man; it’s almost like watching two different characters completely. Lee, as a married family man, is the definition of “the life of the party”. He drinks with his friends, roughhouses with his brother, affectionately teaches his nephew how to fish, and flirts sweetly with his wife (Michelle Williams). Lee, as a lonely janitor, is cautious and measured. A man clearly dealing with emotions flowing very close to the surface, it takes everything in his power to keep those emotions restrained; sometimes they come through as aggression and anger while other times they come through as nothing more than a long stare into the distance. Mr. Lonergan builds moments that place Lee in the middle of ordinary social situations that are difficult for him function in, then into the middle of complicated situations only to watch the character drown in his own sea of self-destruction and self-loathing. You can never tell exactly how Lee will react to these circumstances, it’s an intriguing quality methodically designed by the writer/director.
Accommodating the script is a slew of fantastic performances. Casey Affleck is superb, skillfully handling the weight of the emotions in the film and delivering one of the finest, gut-wrenching performances of the year. Add to this the committed performance from Lucas Hedges who plays Patrick, a teenager trying to find a handle on the death of his father. Mr. Hedges develops the character through the different stages of the grieving process, in one moment with the kind of teenage angst you’d expect from someone his age but also with the carefree outlook that you’d expect from a young person who has lived in the same safe community his entire life.
“Manchester by the Sea” is not a film for every film fan, it's uncomfortable and grueling to watch a character suffer with these kinds of feelings for two plus hours. While the film portrays a tragedy many of us will ever know, pain and sorrow is something we can all relate with in one way or another. We all have wounds that haven't fully healed, some are still aching while others are long past the point of pain. While "Manchester by the Sea" may be polarizing for many viewers, the film displays that we all deal with pain in different ways and some us have unimaginable wounds they may be trying desperately to hide underneath a wealth of different emotions.
4.00 out of 5.0