Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
by Jason Koenigsberg
Manchester by the Sea is a phenomenal picture, why waste your time saying anything less. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has constructed one of the most beautiful films of the year featuring one of the best performances of the year from Casey Affleck. Ben’s little brother formally steps out of the shadow of his more famous sibling and has given the best acting of his career and possibly a better performance than we have ever seen from his brother.
The film opens up with a beautiful shot of the sea as the camera tracks in towards some large houses on the shore setting the tone of where we are. Manchester by the Sea has gorgeous cinematography and captures New England and it’s climate perfectly.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, the reluctant surrogate parent, in a deeply subtle and nuanced performance. Enough praise cannot be given to him and the layers he gives his character making him really come alive. Affleck starts off as seemingly a good natured maintenance man but early on we see glimpses of self-destructive alcoholic traits. These will later come back and have immense consequences. The portrait Casey Affleck paints on screen of a man who fears close human connection. It is eventually revealed why and how dire the family tragedy was that his character went through.
Mr. Lonergan has written a fantastic original screenplay with realistic dialogue that features zero exposition or superfluous lines. Instead he relies on his skills as a director to visually engage the audience providing clues on the screen and from the actors performances for the audience to put the pieces together. This is not an intricate puzzle of a movie, but rather a simple story of a man deeply scarred by tragedy and now after the sudden death of his brother, he is the legal guardian of his teenage nephew. Even as these characters deal with death and tragedy the script has a good sense of humor about it and manages to lighten the mood in a natural unforced manner.
The narrative in Manchester by the Sea is out of order but that adds to the story because it is told in flashbacks as Casey Affleck remembers them and recalls moments with his brother (Kyle Chandler) and ex wife (Michelle Williams). It captures a family dealing with tragedy and all of the natural and awkward moments that come after the loss of a loved one.
Manchester by the Sea’s terrific script contains tender moments that work and is delivered by talented actors perfectly cast for their roles. The acting across the board is great. Affleck’s older brother who passes away is played by Kyle Chandler and he turns in another fine performance with minimal screen time. Also praise should be given to the incredibly talented and underrated Michelle Williams. She only has a few scenes, but there is one in particular where she pours her heart out to Casey Affleck which is probably one of the most powerful scenes from any movie this year.
Another great scene that will stand out long after the end credits is when Casey Affleck is at the lawyers office and he finds out that he is the legal guardian of his late brothers teenage son. “I’m just a back up” he states, which tells the audience everything they need to know about how he views himself and his role in life.
Manchester by the Sea is about surviving a terrible tragedy and having to deal with death when you least expect it and when you do not want to deal with the consequences of picking up the pieces and assuming responsibility after a loved one has passed away. It is also a great film about getting a second chance at redemption and how hard it can be to overcome your fears and make those changes in your life after you have loved and lost so much. But the greatest takeaway from this film is what Manchester by the Sea has to say about moving on from tragedy when you are ready and that everyone moves on at different times. We see many characters around Casey Affleck growing, prospering and moving forward in their lives while his life seems stagnant. But this movie intelligently lets us know that everyone else is hurting inside and always will be.
Kenneth Lonergan has crafted one of the finest films of the year. It is only his third directorial feature and his best so far, although You Can Count On Me (2000) is a very close second right behind it, and Margaret (2011) is a terrific film as well. All his films deal with tragedies and the importance of family and relationships we need during times of mourning. The final shot of Manchester by the Sea is outstanding and it is extremely admirable this film never takes an easy way out or succumbs to happy resolutions. Even though there are moments of levity and joy, these characters and the audience will still feel the pain and heartbreak of tragedy as we always will in life.