Manchester by the Sea, the third film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), is a tale of a man performing penance. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a meager life in a below-ground apartment, literally finding himself beneath the rest of society. He works as a maintenance man, cleaning up for the tenants in his building. When he has a few extra bucks, he goes out for a drink, ignores the women who are interested in him and starts bar brawls he can’t win.
He deserves the beatings. We can see it in his eyes and his hang-dog posture. But, why? What wrongs is Lee atoning for? Why does he seek punishment? With its artfully-edited use of flashbacks, Manchester by the Sea answers those questions when Lee is called home for a family emergency and must face his past in the process.
Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died unexpectedly from a heart attack. When Lee is named guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges), his plans to leave Manchester as soon as he can schedule a funeral hit a snag. Everyone in town seems to know Lee, and they’re keenly aware that he hasn’t been home in a long time. Is it some sort of infamy that kept him away? As each scene unfolds, layers are added to his character. The audience doesn’t have a full picture of the man until the film reaches its final act.
Lonergan is known as a playwright as well as a filmmaker, so it’s no surprise that the film is an acting tour de force. Much has been made of Casey Affleck’s performance and rightfully so. Often content to stand with his hands in his pockets and mumble his dialogue, Manchester by the Sea stretches his acting abilities and proves he’s more than up to the task. Given the similarity of his performances in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), he was rapidly developing into a persona, being cast in a film because his gloomy approach to acting fit the character as written. In Manchester by the Sea, we witness Affleck becoming the character, rather than the character feeling like yet another variation of the actor.
Relative newcomer Lucas Hedges delivers a complex performance as a teenager caught between two worlds. In his sphere of influence, he has girlfriends, a band, and his hockey team, and the death of his father changes none of that. However, there’s the larger world of custody and guardianship that he’s orbiting, trying to avoid the gravitational pull of adult events on his adolescence. In one moment, he’s an exuberant teen; the next, he’s adrift with no responsible parent to guide him. It’s a star-making performance that’s deserving of awards season consideration.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly a happy-go-lucky, Christmas-time trip to the multiplex, but if you’re a fan of the fall movie season and the rich dramas it can bring, you need to fit this film into your holiday viewing schedule. Just be forewarned that it’s some emotional heavy lifting.
[Note: If you don’t have the time to hit the theater for a screening of Manchester by the Sea, take a look at the latest in home video offerings with our Film Dispenser Short Takes for the week of December 6, 2016.]
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.