The powerfully affecting drama Manchester by the Sea centers on the New England janitor Lee (Casey Affleck), who must take over care of his dead brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The searing performance by Affleck and the masterful story-telling by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan combine to make Manchester by the Sea a Must See and one the year’s very best films.
As the movie opens, we see Lee dealing with a series of apartment tenants, and we learn that he is emotionally isolated, and extremely reluctant to become entangled in any human relationships, even with willing females. Underneath, he is a witty guy, but he masks that with a stoic veneer. We also see that he is suppressing a rage that occasionally erupts.
Why is he like this? It’s hinted that there has been a tragedy for which he feels guilty. Mid-movie, that tragedy is depicted, and it’s hard to imagine a worse one. This is a man who, faced with an event that cannot be undone, has been disabled by grief and guilt. It becomes clear why he is so reluctant to take over the role as his nephew’s guardian.
Patrick has all the typical willfulness and teenage thirst for independence – all while expecting Lee to chauffeur him around his rich teen social life. Any teen is disaffected to some extent, but Patrick’s troubled mother has not been in the picture, and now his father has died. Lee is Patrick’s favorite uncle, and he is hurt and confused by Lee’s reaction, and he doesn’t understand why Lee is unwilling to drop everything to parent Patrick.
The friction between the two is remarkably realistic. Both Patrick and Lee have quick, sarcastic tongues, which make their scenes pretty funny, too. In fact, Manchester by the Sea is filled with humorous moments. There’s that awkwardness: how are you supposed to act when there is a death in the family – and yet something funny happens? Lonergan has an eye for the little things that go wrong in life: when the decedent’s last effects are misplaced, when the gurney won’t fold down to fit into the ambulance, when the cell phone buzzes in the funeral. And when the most horrible tragedy is marked by a forlorn plastic bag of junk food and beer.
A family death is naturally dramatic, and Lonergan uses this event to explore intense feelings of grief, guilt, responsibility and resentment. Absolutely every character acts like people do in real life. The result is a remarkable sense of authenticity.
Affleck has produced some of the greatest recent screen acting performances, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone and Ain’t Those Bodies Saints. This performance is a career topper, a surefire Oscar-winner that will lead his obit. Just note how Affleck’s Lee answers a bad news phone call and the way he wordlessly eyeballs his ex-wife’s new husband.
Young Lucas Hedges steps up to play against Affleck, and Hedges makes his Patrick completely compelling and believable. Hedge’s Patrick is smart, wounded, insecure, needy, prideful and a smart mouth that we like being around.
As befits a Lonergan movie, all of the acting in Manchester By the Sea is top rate. The final scene between Michelle Williams and Affleck is utterly heartbreaking. I particularly liked C.J. Wilson as the family’s partner in their fishing boat.
As good as it is, Manchester by the Sea is not for everyone. The Wife and her sister had a meh reaction because they weren’t absorbed by Lee’s lack of apparent affect and didn’t think that the story’s arc paid off.
This is the third movie directed by the major American playwright Kenneth Lornergan. who has directed three movies. The first was another actor’s showcase, the excellent 2000 drama You Can Count on Me with Laura Linney as a well-grounded single mom and Mark Ruffalo as her reliably unreliable brother.
Lonergan made his second film, the near-masterpiece Margaret, in 2007. The studio fought with Lonergan over the film’s editing, cut it over his objection, and issued it to theaters in a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it release in 2011. In 2012, a DVD was released with both the studio’s 150-minutes version and with Lonergan’s preferred 186-minute cut. I own the DVD, and have seen the director’s cut. It’s an amazing film, and there’s an even better (shorter) one in there.
You Can Count on Me addresses responsibility, and Margaret deals with the consequences of an act that can’t be undone. Manchester by the Sea deals with these themes even more successfully and evocatively.
Manchester by the Sea is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.