REVIEW: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Theatrical Release Poster - Roadside Attractions
Theatrical Release Poster – Roadside Attractions

The following is a review of Manchester by the Sea – Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Manchester by the Sea mostly takes place in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, which is the hometown of our main character Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck). At the beginning of the film, however, Lee is a relentlessly self-punishing and reserved janitor who no longer keeps in touch with the rest of his family. He spends nights getting drunk and getting into fights with anyone who looks at him the wrong way.

His world is shattered, however, when he gets a phone call from a hospital. Lee’s brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), is in the hospital and soon passes away due to a heart attack. Lee now returns to the hometown that chewed him up and spat him out after he made a mistake when he lived there as a married man. This new situation is further complicated when he finds out that he is expected to become his nephew’s guardian and move back to Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Manchester by the Sea is a heartbreaking film that deals with deep depression, grief, guilt, and the communication of emotion. It is a really interesting and honest film, which is full of realistic characters. It’s also surprisingly funny. It has this great almost thriller-like non-linear structure that works very well, as we are trying to figure out what made our lead character who he is.

At the center of it all, we have Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler. Casey has been in his brother’s shadow for quite a while. Ben Affleck is, of course, not just an actor but also a filmmaking triple-threat: director, writer, and producer. Casey Affleck, who was the lead in his older brother’s feature-length directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, has never been better though, and I’ll go as far as saying this performance is the greatest piece of acting we’ve seen from the Afflecks.

It is a tour-de-force performance worthy of all the awards attention available, and it may earn him an Academy Award soon. But his performance is an understated and unpretentious one. He has a number of memorable scenes, including one where he has to give a testimony to the police, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Affleck shares his character’s biggest sign of life with Michelle Williams in a scene that is just terrible to watch in the saddest, best, and most vulnerable way.

They’re essentially opposites. Williams’ Randi is now remarried and expecting a child, while Lee remains an aimless individual who just tries to get up in the morning and get through the day. It isn’t easy for either of them, but they are both broken, and the film, through it’s non-linear structure, makes it painfully clear why they are so different.

Manchester by the Sea could’ve been carried by just Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams’ wonderful performances, but they’re not alone in adding emotion and humanity to the film. Although his character dies in the first act, Kyle Chandler adds a lot to the film. He was the driving force in his brother’s life after Lee and Randi divorced, and I really enjoyed how their relationship was shown to us.

Lastly, you are also given a really striking performance from Lucas Hedges. His character is surprisingly confident, and while he does try to remain stoic in front of his friends and Lee, his confidence is shattered in a pivotal scene. Had I not heard from other reviews that Lucas Hedges was great in the film, then I would’ve expected nothing particularly strong from him, but I really liked what I was given here. Matthew Broderick also shows up in one or two scenes that just feel so weird compared to the rest of the film, and Kenneth Lonergan even has a cameo, at one point.

But Manchester by the Sea does fall short of perfection once or twice, and, really, I had two issues with the film. Now, my first problem with the film is that I think there are one or two scenes were the film zigged when it should’ve zagged thus hurting the tone of a scene, which in one case meant that the filmmakers decided to highlight the oddities of life rather than fully letting you endure the sadness of a pivotal scene.

Now, the other issue I have with the film is much more problematic for me. Lesley Barber, who also scored Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me, composed the music for Manchester by the Sea, and throughout most of the movie you get this operatic background music that just really didn’t work for me. It didn’t seem appropriate for the setting or the main characters.

However, Manchester by the Sea is a remarkably strong film about how you live with grief and guilt, and what happens when life keeps moving forward while you are alone, empty, and lost. It is a film that deals with an aimless and somewhat impassive person who is suddenly forced to rejoin the community that made him who he is. Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of 2016.

9.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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