Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan
I knew this was going to be quite emotional, yet I wasn’t aware how heartbreaking it would be, with one of the most effective depictions of a broken man who can’t escape his past that I’ve ever seen.
When his older brother dies, janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) finds himself the guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), returning to the small town he left years ago under very difficult circumstances.
Lonergan has certainly improved his film writing since the terrible sequel ‘Analyze That’, I’ve not seen any of his other film work except ‘Analyze This’ which he wrote. As my (almost) first impression, you can consider me impressed by his directorial and writing work, avoiding the trappings I was maybe unfairly expecting of a playwright. Here he goes beyond the restrictions of the stage, making great use of the abilities of the medium of film, opening and closing this with beautiful shots of the seaside town setting and fully incorporating simple editing abilities to simultaneously develop events of two time periods in a way that doesn’t detract from either.
As if the main inciting incident wasn’t a tough enough prospect, our central character is a clearly broken man even before his brother passes away, conveyed so well through just a few scenes of his life in a sparsely furnished basement apartment with a thankless job and rejecting any human connection. The film gradually develops the backstory of why Affleck’s character Lee Chandler moved away from the area and why he’s so reluctant to be back. It’s a truly heartbreaking story, told in at times frequent and extended flashbacks, slowly unfolding his past and the serious circumstances that caused him to move away and live the way he does. That’s not to say that the entire film is a depressing melange of sadness, there are scenes with great humour that are brief moments of relief that work well as a counterpoint to the other themes, as we often react to difficult and sad situations with humour and awkward laughter so it never feels out of place to laugh along with some scenes.
Casey Affleck really takes the lead here, perfectly portraying a hollow shell of a man who seems to be emptily walking through his life. Opening the film with scenes of him spending time with his brother and nephew than are full of warmth and love, we see what his life is like now, the total opposite. Being someone who pushes everyone away and gets into fights makes him a difficult prospect for a character we need to like, though the film then explains exactly why he is the way he is, then we understand and can begin to sympathise.
Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi is fantastic but only actually in a few scenes, maybe four or five. I think it’s her last scene, an awkward chance encounter with her ex-husband, that gives her the best chance to shine and is solely responsible for the awards buzz surrounding her including the ‘Supporting Actress’ Oscar nomination. Flashbacks of Lee and Randi’s marriage are also some of their best moments, there’s a tenderness that makes the difficulties of seeing each other later all the more painful.
Lucas Hedges as Lee’s nephew Patrick is excellent and has the most fun role, though bereaved, his character stays busy with his life, friends, band practice and multiple girlfriends. The central relationship between him and his uncle is excellent, established by a younger actor playing him before things got bad, Hedges and Affleck work well together on giving their relationship depth. I loved how they are played as very similar to each other, two men who are dealing with loss yet hardly talking about it, unsure how to support each other so spending most of their time actively working through the logistics of their situation, hardly doing any heart-to-hearts.
Edited with a mix of extended scenes and really brief moments where we see just enough to get the point then move straight on before the scene would get to a natural conclusion. Lonergan understands the power of showing not just telling, while holding just enough back from the audience to let them fill in the gaps. There are moments where we get what’s almost an extract of a scene yet it’s enough to know where it’s going, at times referring to things that were said or happened but not showing them specifically in flashback so the details aren’t there yet we can guess, it doesn’t need to be said or shown. Some of these short scenes are the most powerful and impressive, where there may not even be a line of dialogue uttered but they speak to the human emotions and difficulties more than the typical key scenes (such as a funeral) or conversations do. Flashbacks are seamlessly integrated too, not at regular intervals, but with changing frequency and length, at times unclear immediately that they are flashbacks. These aren’t specifically distinguished from the rest of the film with any change in colour palette or film style, just cut straight in the middle of other scenes with no consistently apparent triggers. Memories and thoughts do often work like that and I found it really effective as it prevented me for getting too comfortable in a scene, often pulled out of one difficult situation and into another with no warning, at one point repeatedly back and forth in such a way that by the end of it I was emotionally exhausted but far the wiser as so much had been developed ostensibly in the space of one otherwise quite static and conversational scene.
I knew the basic premise of the film was a man taking guardianship of his nephew after his brother dies, the rest of it I’d avoided spoilers for. That allowed the film to be fully effective, hitting me hard with the key reveals as intended, though I’d heard other reviewers tip-toe around spoilers so I knew something was coming, it’s worth knowing at least that. It’s not an uplifting ‘feel-good’ movie, there’s minimal character arcs or sense of redemption, so we don’t leave these characters feeling like their lives or ours have been vastly improved. I did feel though that I left these characters after really getting to know and understand them, not able to fully empathise with their situations yet clear about why they make the choices they do and able to sympathise enough to say I was glad I spent this time with them, even if I couldn’t say I enjoyed watching them go through this.
‘Manchester by the Sea’ has been doing very well with awards, taking many it has been nominated for and putting Affleck in with a good chance of ‘Best Actor’ though personal criticisms and strong competition may work against him. With some of the 5 other Academy Award nominations the film has a chance of winning, especially ‘Original Screenplay’ which I think could be the one trophy it walks away with.