In many movies, a performance is another piece of the cinematic puzzle; an important contribution from a collaborator who is helping to build a bigger, more complete vision. Yet, it cannot be stressed enough how much Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee Chandler is the soul of Manchester by the Sea. It’s a riveting turn that makes this bittersweet drama (with emphasis on the bitter) about New England pride and sorrow a true gem. One of a deep, sapphire blue quality.
To be sure, Manchester by the Sea is an all-around lovely and emotionally raw film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret). However, it is also the kind of picture that gets praised as a new instant classic out of Sundance, but leaves most of the other people who didn’t spend their January in a quiet mountain town scratching their heads at the hype. Luckily in this case, Lonergan has provided Affleck with such a showcase that I am willing to bet it will propel him all the way through awards season; it also lets him give the rest of us a truly heartbreaking portrait of amiable self-destruction.
The ginger plot of the piece is that Affleck’s Lee Chandler has not returned to the town of his childhood home in Essex County for at least six years. For the audience, his exit is a mystery, but one of lucid tragedy, which is worn on the face of every townie that glimpses his return. Also, unfortunately, Lee’s homecoming instantly means that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away.
As it turns out, Joe had a rare heart condition that limited his time on this earth. Hence, it was only a matter of time before Lee got the call and was forced to drop his dead end job as a custodian in Boston, and go break the news to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s teenage son. Lee is under the impression that he is only in town long enough for the memorial service and to execute Joe’s final arrangements, but it soon becomes clear that he was left with guardianship of Patrick, much to the surprise of both Chandler boys.
Patrick, for what it’s worth, seems to be taking his father’s death relatively well, and with a thriving social life at 16-years-old, he hopes things to stay pretty much the same. But the longer Joe remains in Manchester, the more he is forced to remember via flashbacks his happier days when he was married to Randi (Michelle Williams) with three angelic children in tow—and reminded that this can never be his life again as he watches a pregnant and remarried Randi also attend a memorial service with pity in her eyes.
Manchester by the Sea is a small movie about emotions grander than any hundred million-dollar spectacle. And unlike most actor-friendly films, the sentiments are never directly stated (or overstated). Lee cannot even name the demons that could very well chase him to the grave. He simply refers to them as an “it” between trips to the bar. The implicit humor of the movie comes from the brief vignettes and smaller moments of life that everyone else embraces while Lee watches on, as separated from their world as a Gloucester fisherman looking at the creatures beneath the sea.
The rest of the ensemble is also given their moments with Lucas Hedges being a real find for Lonergan. The young man imbues his part as a teenage ward of townie gusto with needed spunk and flippancy, shaking Lee out of his misery by refusing to let his father’s death ruin his life. At least not for too long. The chemistry between Affleck and Hedges is just about the only warm thing in the blankets of snow surrounding the characters.
Williams also does well, but she merely has one big scene where she can let down her guard in what is otherwise an almost tertiary role. Her absence does at least linger, allowing her presence to be felt at all times by Affleck, even though we gracefully aren’t ever forced to see in flashback the actual scene where she undoubtedly ended their shattered marriage. Likewise, Kyle Chandler is mostly asked to be the lovable working class hero that he’s played many times before, and he is just as effective here in the few flashbacks we get of Joe while alive.
Lonergan is very much keen on maintaining a simplicity to his story, having the flashbacks fill in less narrative details about Lee’s anguish than they do of offering an impressionistic view of a time when life made sense, was enjoyable, and literally sunny since we see Joe, Lee, and Patrick out on the family boat during the dog days of summer.
But for all the personal and unspoken trauma that bubbles beneath the surface of Manchester by the Sea, there is the gnawing sensation that the movie could dive deeper into these folks’ lives beyond the slice of life persistence that follows any tragedy. Then again, it is for that same intimacy that Lonergan and his cast never can never play a false note. From a bitter Affleck to a bemusing cameo by Matthew Broderick as a Born Again Christian, each performer toes the line on this ship, with Affleck’s minimalist despair and self-loathing acting as the mast, wind, and motor for the entire enterprise. Albeit, whether audiences will want this boatload of melancholy to dock on their shore will be a different matter. For those with the kind of seafaring legs that allows them to venture a little further though, it’ll be worth it.