By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
After achieving critical success with his previous two directorial efforts, You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (shot in 2005, but not released until 2011), playwright-turned-film-maker Kenneth Lonergan impresses again with his latest, Manchester by the Sea, which continues his fascination with family, responsibility, and forgiveness.
Opening in a suburb of Boston, we are introduced to Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman/janitor who is employed to help maintain various tenement buildings. Introverted and difficult, Lee’s boss receives regular complaints about him being rude and unfriendly, but these negative comments don’t seem to bother Lee at all. The only time Lee seems to let off steam is when he drinks, becoming involved in fights that he always instigates. Lee seems to prefer viewing life from the sidelines, and any opportunity to connect with others is ignored or spurned.
One morning Lee receives a phone call, where he is informed that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suddenly passed away. Lee, who hasn’t seen his brother in some time, immediately makes the 90 minute drive to his hometown of Manchester, ready to deal with whatever procedures are required to put Joe’s body to rest. At the hospital he meets up with George (C.J. Wilson), Joe’s fishing colleague and longtime friend, who is suitably upset at what has happened.
One of the duties Lee carries out is picking up Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) from ice hockey practice, and telling him that his father has died. It is here that an unspecified reputation surrounding Lee starts to surface. Lee suffers another shock when he is advised that Joe has assigned him as Patrick’s legal guardian, a responsibility that Lee does not want to accept. With Lee’s past starting to invade his thoughts (via multiple flashbacks), which includes his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), this loner, who appears to be carrying a massive emotional weight on his shoulders, will have to confront the previous decisions he has made with those that have to be devised for the future.
Manchester by the Sea is a privilege to not only watch, but also to listen to. Lonergan’s ear for dialogue and love for people is prevalent throughout, and the time he takes to build-up and flesh-out his characters, while vividly portraying the locale they inhabit, results in a joyous experience that stands out amongst all the CGI-smothered, hyper-edited blockbusters that fill our theatres now. This in turn allows its well-chosen cast to bring these flawed creations to believable, credible life.
Casey Affleck is sensational as Lee, using his brilliant sense of underplaying to allow us to gradually understand this man’s distant behaviour, even when he frequently makes it hard for anyone to like him. Thankfully breaking free from those awful Ocean’s Eleven films, Affleck has built up a terrific body of acting work, including Gone Baby Gone (under the direction of brother Ben), Out of the Furnace, Lonesome Jim, The Killer Inside Me, and the overly Malick-inspired The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and delivers here possibly his greatest performance to date.
Hedges, whose previous credits include Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Kill the Messenger, makes the most of the meatiest role of his short career. Combining the various elements of a traditional teenager, Hedges handles Patrick’s conflicted persona with skill. Chandler (The Wolf of Wall Street, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo) and Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women), whose characters we see in flashback, add considerable weight to the story that is playing out, and the scene where Lee and Randi eventually meet face-to-face is worth the price of admission alone. Everyone though is fantastic.
Manchester’s frozen appearance is well-captured by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Afterschool, Martha Marcy May Marlene), beautifully comparing its icy state to that of its main character, but it is a metaphor that is not overstated. The film’s naturalistic pacing is realised through the superb editing of Jennifer Lame (Frances Ha, While We’re Young).
Lonergan the director listens to Lonergan the writer, giving the material space to develop and grow. By simply permitting his characters to talk to and interact with one another, the drama surfaces in an organic fashion, letting the audience to become fully involved in a world that many will be able to relate to. Though filled with moments of heartbreak, the film also contains a substantial amount of humour, a lot of which is genuinely funny. Again it is Lonergan’s mix of the tragic and absurd that keeps the story firmly planted in real-life. He also refreshingly believes that you don’t have to shake the camera an inch from people’s faces to present a realistic, insightful film dealing with the human condition.
Manchester by the Sea, along with Moonlight, is one of the best films to come out over the past year, and deserves every nomination it has received at the 2017 Academy Awards. By daring to concentrate on character and dialogue, an approach increasingly rare in contemporary Hollywood, Manchester by the Sea truly satisfies in way that is reminiscent of the great films of the 1970’s. If you haven’t seen Lonergan’s other two movies, please race out and do so, but please, only view Margaret in its original 186 minute director’s cut.