Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

Unhappily divorced brother becomes guardian of his orphaned nephew in Kenneth Lonergan's quiet, intense melodrama.
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No matter what you've heard about it, Manchester by the Sea is not what you expect. Yes, it's an emotional tour de force, with award-worthy performances, writing and directing. But Kenneth Lonergan moves at a different pace than most Hollywood directors. He depicts people and situations that don't often get to the screen, with uncommon sympathy and insight. The result is one of the most penetrating dramas of the year.

The story opens with Lee Chandler, an underachieving Boston janitor, played by Casey Affleck in a tightly controlled monotone. Lee won't connect with anyone except during sudden, violent outbursts that leave him bruised and beaten. He is a man who expects to be punished, who never doubts that what's bad can turn worse.

His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, suddenly but not unexpectedly, of congestive heart failure. In his will, Joe names Lee guardian of his 16-year-old son Patrick (a very capable Lucas Hedges). Lee is expected to move from Boston back to his childhood home, a small town where apparently everyone knows his story.

Lee at first seems overwhelmed by day-to-day details of morgues, funeral parlors, and dealing with a sullen, self-absorbed teenager who doesn't want him to be there. Despite his efforts to live up to his brother's wishes, Lee's cold eyes and measured voice, and the guarded reactions of those around him, mark him as troubled, flawed, alone.

Flashbacks weave in and out of the story, showing Joe, Lee and a very young Patrick on their commercial fishing boat, introducing Patrick's alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Mol), and Lee's tempestuous marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams).

One extended flashback at midpoint builds slowly, imperceptibly to the moment that explains Lee's vacant stare. Here, Lonergan's precision and compassion as a filmmaker shine through. Every element, from the moody orchestral score and subdued cinematography to Affleck's heart-wrenching performance, is so finely tuned that viewers are swept unwittingly into an emotional maelstrom.

All is not doom and gloom in Manchester by the Sea. This being Lonergan, the script has its share of slapstick sex, sharp-edged insults, comic fights, and the kind of nagging, back-and-forth exchanges that get nowhere but leave their sting.

Aided by its understated camerawork, lived-in production design and comfortable, unfussy performances, Manchester by the Sea is as honest about its characters and how they live as movies can get these days. Lonergan gets the smallest details right, from the lack of privacy in cramped seaside houses to the mundane routines that dominate the day: driving, parking, microwaving old slices of pizza.

But Lonergan is also dealing with the awful weight of guilt and desire, sometimes through shocking outbursts. Affleck gives a remarkable performance as Lee, someone so buffeted by life and yet now forced to face everything bad that has happened to him. With more limited screen time, Michelle Williams is asked to do a lot, and she responds with one of the most nuanced turns in her career. And Lucas Hedges does an excellent job in a difficult part, showing just how annoying and yet appealing teens can be.

Learning how to forgive is just one of the themes in Manchester by the Sea, and what helps make this movie so memorable is how hard a lesson that is.

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