Do we really need an extreme downer about a man who cannot lift himself up? The tough sell Manchester by the Sea is the exact film of devastation and grief that most people feel they don’t need, because you expect a gut punch without relief. As I get older, I’m less inclined for feel-bad cinema. Yet we have an exception. Here we have a tragedy that goes all in, risks it all, without holding back. I think also it carries you along because it’s so colloquial – it sounds so authentic, and therefore, relatable to a degree. Likely nothing as bad as what happens to Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler character has ever happened to you. But likely you’ve met a guy in life who drags along in perpetual grief and you can’t see why he can’t lighten up. With Lee, his soul is paralyzed with anguish and regret.
“Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by the reputable guy of smarts Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me” and “Margaret” are his other director by credits highly worthy of viewing, in addition he has worked on other screenplays), lets you see this particular guy very clearly. Affleck is a handyman working on minimum wage that accords with free tenement housing, that being a small basement bedroom. The bare bones room takes on a symbolism: It’s as if Lee feels he is unworthy of anything better. He’s a guy living on completely negative vibes, shutting out anything positive that extends his way.
We are in suspense of what led him to be this way. We get a fragmented narrative that goes back in time to his times when he actually had a life: a wife (Michelle Williams, as the shrill and nagging type) and kids, and moreover, something more than a cell for habitat – he had a two-story house. The movie gets us worked up in how he loses all of that, and when it comes time it floors us with its big reveal, by way of masterful composition, music and editing, of what accounted for the pivotal downfall of his life.
In the current time, he faces the new anguish of his brother’s death (Kyle Chandler), who in passing, leaves him in his will a tremendous new responsibility. In the will, Lee is to be the guardian of his sixteen year old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This isn’t your ordinary teenager you normally see at the movies. While Patrick is slow to process his grief, he is actually quite smart, appealing to girlfriends and potential girlfriends, has a shrewd sense in the art of manipulation, can negotiate, and seems very capable of passing into adulthood. All Patrick needs to succeed in adulthood is more experience in getting there. He needs some simple steering to grow into a great guy.
We see Lee before the tragedy that has defined his life, and after, and while he once seemed like a groovy dad who went with the flow of things, he now is unsure on how to behave like a well-balanced adult. His posture is one of a fifteen year old. He engages in conversation as if socializing is a bane. We see Lee squirming with this guardianship that’s been handed to him, he clearly is thinking of ways to dodge it, building to points of self-sabotage so he can be unfitting of it.
“Manchester by the Sea,” which is brilliantly acted by Affleck because he’s so haunted by memories he doesn’t want to escape from, is so uncompromisingly about a man unwilling to forgive himself for his past that he’s willing to continue endless purgatory before he would try something new. I think it’s the best American tragedy since 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which had Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers who implode.
Excellent supporting turns by all, including Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, C.J. Wilson, Anna Baryshnikov, Tate Donovan and of course, Michelle Williams who gets a surprising monologue which convinces the viewer to re-think the pivotal catastrophe in a new way. Winner of two Oscars, Affleck for Best Actor and Lonergan for Best Original Screenplay.
137 Minutes. Rated R.
TRAGIC DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / MASTERPIECE VIEWING