REVIEW: Manchester by the Sea [2016]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 137 minutes | Release Date: November 18th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Roadside Attractions / Amazon Studios
Director(s): Kenneth Lonergan
Writer(s): Kenneth Lonergan

“I can’t beat it”

It’s hard to imagine a Manchester by the Sea directed by Matt Damon and starring John Krasinski, but that was the original plan. They actually brought the idea to Kenneth Lonergan—Damon acted in one of his friend’s plays on stage and also his sophomore film Margaret. Hollywood is tough, though. Schedules fill up and pieces move around. Damon loved the initial draft Lonergan drew up for them so much that he asked him to take over directing duties while he shifted to the lead (perhaps Krasinski readying his own directorial debut with The Hollars freed that spot up). But soon even acting in it became impossible. So Damon (a producer on the project) recruited Casey Affleck to replace him. Their third leading man was definitely the charm.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor in Quincy who keeps to himself when not at the local bar getting drunk enough to start brawling. The actor also plays Lee Chandler the uncle: the wise-cracking, always-smiling Manchester-by-the-Sea family man so completely removed from what he becomes that it’s difficult to reconcile the two. Only through Lonergan’s carefully crafted flashbacks do we move towards the event that ultimately shatters his existence and turns this seaside town into ground zero for crippling pain. The fact his brother and best friend Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies is hardly the issue Lee must combat here. Joe was on a ticking clock; everyone knew it was coming. Lee’s struggle is in returning to Manchester to handle the arrangements and collect his nephew (Lucas Hedges‘ Patrick).

The first flashback could just be a sign of happier times for Lee. Once we go into his old home to meet his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), however, the inevitable truth we can’t help but imagine gets exposed. Even so, Lonergan merely provides the framework for the horrific tragedy coming. The how is something wholly different and unexpected; the aftermath so heartbreaking in its sense of futility that present-day Lee comes into focus as pitiable rather than our initial assumption of his simply being a jerk. There’s a reason why he works four different apartment buildings and hardly has time for anything but sleep and drink. If he doesn’t busy himself with chores or numb his mind with alcohol, thoughts of what happened come flooding back.

Lonergan delivers a story about grief with an authenticity we rarely see at our local multiplex. He’s never been one to provide easy answers or happily-ever-afters, more just a bittersweet hope that living through and enduring the heartache keeps alive. He’s portraying the love of family and how it survives and becomes stronger in times of need. When Lee’s nightmare occurred it was Joe who made sure he got through it. Joe was the one who went the extra mile to remind his brother that he was loved. And now that he’s gone (congenital heart failure), the duty of holding things together falls on Lee. He has to muster the courage to return and see the faces that remind him of what haunts his every waking minute.

The result is a nuanced look at two people who are more alike than they’d ever admit. Both Lee and Patrick remain internalized—their emotions held close and their power of deflection fully charged to push important conversations off until they’re hopefully forgotten. They’re equally frustrating, busting each other’s balls as a means to express that frustration. And they’re also extremely loyal to the man that kept them together after his own bout with tragedy (Joe’s wife Elise, as played by Gretchen Mol, disappeared when hard truths revealed themselves to be too much to handle). Patrick made promises he intends to keep and even though Lee wants nothing to do with the boy’s guardianship, he refuses to let certain alternatives go against his brother’s wishes to escape it.

Manchester by the Sea is therefore all about survival. No one onscreen can ever forget what has happened to his/her family, they can only hope to accept it enough to keep moving forward. The film becomes a mixture of brief vignettes alternating between past and present with extremely dramatic conversations that get to the heart of their suffering even if fate renders apologies into words that can never change personal truths. Every single member of the Chandler family feels grief, guilt, or regret. Every single one has blights on their history (except maybe Joe who really stood tall despite it all). But don’t expect some epiphany or grand reversal for anyone. Don’t expect those who were able to move on to forget their tragedy or relinquish their undying love.

Lonergan isn’t interested in solutions. He merely wants to show how humanity can overcome defeats on a case-by-case basis if the moment warrants it. This isn’t a fix as much as a selective bout of amnesia, though. As soon as the circumstances that bring Lee to Manchester have run their course, he has to go back to his self-enforced exile if only to wake up in the morning with the slightest opportunity of not automatically looking back. The same can be said with Mol’s Elise as her own rehabilitation with fiancé Jeffrey’s (Matthew Broderick) help proves a step forward rather than a clean bill of health. The same also goes with Patrick, his youthful vitality and aggression clouding his memory enough to forget what relocating means for Lee.

The performances deftly ensure that what look like acts of selfishness actually play as acts of self-preservation. This shines through Williams, Hedges, and Affleck most because they want something very specific and know the impossibly rocky terrain they must traverse to achieve it. Williams’ Randi will break your heart: a literal mirror into Lee’s past and yet crucial for him ever escaping the daydream he calls a life. If anyone earns closure it’s Randi, but it’s still ceremonial at best. She’ll never truly be free of her pain and knows nothing she says will erase it for Lee. As for Hedges, this really is a star-making turn. His charisma and humor will delight, but nothing beats his silent reaction to three photo frames reminding him of a truth time forgot.

Above Longergan’s memorable dialogue, the supporting cast, and Jennifer Lame‘s seamless editing transitioning between two decades with absolute coherency, this is Casey Affleck’s film. Besides a couple flashbacks of pure joy, he’s but a shadow unable to conjure emotion even when he’s angry. His Lee is a shell going through the motions because he too made a promise to Joe. If he could flip a switch to be what Patrick needs he would. But after watching Affleck’s face during Lee’s opening tenant tour, we understand that no switch exists. Instead we watch him do his best. We watch them all do their best. And even though we don’t receive closure by the end, the fact everyone is still trying proves that hope remains alive. For them and us.

[1] Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
[2] Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.
Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
[3] Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

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