OP-ROB RATING: LEGEND
“Manchester by the Sea” is a film directed by Kenneth Lonergan starring Casey Affleck as Lee, a Boston janitor who spends his days serving rude apartment tenants and getting into bar fights. Lee is suddenly yanked out of his normal life when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of heart failure, leaving behind a teenage son named Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and several other assets including a house and a fishing boat. The subsequent burial, allocation of the will, and funeral require Lee to temporarily relocate an hour away from Boston to Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts where his brother lived. Lee himself once lived in Manchester by the Sea, but made a mistake one night that resulted in a horrific personal loss. Throughout the film, Lee finds himself caught between his responsibility for Patrick and his desire return to his secluded life outside of Boston.
Most of us know what it feels like to have bad memories connected to a physical location. Most of us know what it feels like to lose something invaluable in our lives. Granted, the tragedy that haunts Lee is probably far more dreadful than anyone in the theater can relate to. But it is his despair that makes the story so compelling. Because despair is always deeply, impossibly personal. However, Lonergan manages to build a story that reveals despair with refreshing clarity. Earlier this year I reviewed a film called “Demolition” that sought to explore this very same human affliction. While “Demolition” made a grand effort, it ultimately failed because of a muddled plot that overextended itself. “Manchester by the Sea” avoids this pitfall. Furthermore, Casey Affleck turns in a fantastic performance that will likely land him an armful of awards this winter. Few actors have portrayed such an authentically unsettled man.
In addition to Affleck’s performance the simply told story in “Manchester by the Sea” is refreshingly original. In many films audiences are presented with a character that has experienced a great tragedy, whether it be Sean Thornton (John Wayne) in “The Quiet Man” or Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in “The Shawshank Redemption”. These characters almost always find a path out of the darkness that haunts them. “Manchester By the Sea” presents a similarly challenged main character in Lee, yet his experience with loss proves much different. At many points during the film Lee is presented with opportunities for redemption, often arriving in the form of typical drama movie tropes. However, instead of taking the bait, Lee constantly defies the viewer’s expectations.
Another facet of the film that is worth noting is the beautiful cinematography throughout. The wide shots of the open Atlantic coupled with the distinctly New England architecture are particularly compelling. Throughout the film Lonergan manages to keep the viewer in perspective. The beauty of the film always bolsters the plot and never dominates it. The brisk shots of the New England winter are nicely paired with the hardy attitude of the blue-collar characters. “Manchester by the Sea” is very well done yet never condescending in its excellence.
Ultimately some viewers might be disappointed with “Manchester by the Sea” because of its rather cold ending. There is a scene near the end of the film in which Lee tells Patrick, “I can’t beat it”. While there is something comforting about films that wrap everything up, there is also something unrealistic about them. In life, some wounds never heal, and “Manchester by the Sea” reflects this reality in beautifully effective fashion.