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The unbearable weight of being who he is leaves Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) an island in a world crowded by boats looking for safe haven, or at least a place to stop and unload their own refuse for a short while. He works as a super at an apartment building, daily unclogging pipes and shoveling snow, barely able to hide his contempt for being alive, souring his evenings in drink and confrontations.
When he gets a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from a disease that all knew would one day take his life, Lee is thrust into a role he’s not fully able to grasp. He returns to Manchester where his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) lives. He hasn’t seen her in years, and the haunts of his past make returning almost as devastating as his loss. More distressing though is the sudden custody of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s son, a teen boy with issues of his own, who saddles Lee with new and troubling responsibility. All the while, the reasons for why Lee left linger like a dark poison and layer it all in mystery because of questions that press with intolerable weight.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By The Sea is only his third film in sixteen years, and immediately begs the question why? His work has always been brutal, stories of seemingly simple hardships that he crafts into deeply personal journeys. Character-driven, the people in his films are not so much trajectories on an arc but people in suspension, faced with compelling circumstances that bind them to a larger truth they might not even have the capacity to unravel. With Lee Chandler, Lonergan perhaps delivers his most challenging creation yet, a tightly-wound self-loathing kettle of misanthropic rage, embittered by a tragedy that has rotted his core but in turn has left him a man of considerable depths. He is severely damaged, but he is never damaging.
The film is about many things but centers on the relationship between Lee and Patrick, two men with connection that both divides and binds them, each searching for a slice of understanding that can help them make sense of it all. It’s a remarkable balance maintained by two astonishing performances that feels genuine throughout. Lee’s slow absorption of his new role sees him taking to Patrick with both duty and need while Patrick fumbles with his transition from adolescence to man, toying with the hearts of two girlfriends along the way. Lonergan’s script is a vivid, traumatizing, and raw piece of work that exposes these two in ways that are difficult to describe but are powerfully affecting.
That’s made all the more authentic by Affleck’s impressive work as Lee. It would be tempting to call it transcendental but to be honest, it feels like the natural extension of many of Affleck’s performances. He’s always been an actor of position, using his body and head in small gestures that have such great importance, rarely letting his voice rise to express emotion but rather a glance or a shift in his shoulders to speak for him. He seems always a tinderbox and with Chandler, reveals tremendous potential for fire within him, but he lets Lee constantly simmer, both as necessity and as penance. Pay attention to him on a boat as he watches Patrick teach a girl how steer. It’s a subtle, powerfully illuminating bit of acting that wordlessly speaks volumes about trust, acceptance, love, and dignity.
Others are very good as well, with Williams heartbreaking in her brief appearance. There is a moment between Randi and Lee that is one of the most honest in recent years, and stands as a powerful testament to Lonergan’s gift for storytelling, stripping away entirely the expectations of conflict and instead giving two utterly broken people a small stage to realize there are some roads forever closed.
Manchester By The Sea is a tragic story but is never depressing nor manipulative in how it’s presented. Like Lonergan’s earlier films, You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), there is some humor but not comedy. We sometimes feel uncomfortable as witnesses to the frankness of these stories, and yet there is something deeply defining about them that make us feel a part of them. Manchester By The Sea is a remarkable film, a glorious embrace of arresting visuals and shattering dialogue and is a true cinematic joy.
Movie description: Manchester By The Sea is a 2016 drama about a man asked to take care of his nephew after the boy's father has died.
Director(s): Kenneth Lonergan
Actor(s): Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler