Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Affleck is on point, Williams will break your heart and you’ll be looking out for Lucas Hedges in years to come. Kenneth Loregan’s subtly beautiful and sneakily tragic film is gentle and brutal in equal measure. Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a lonely, surly janitor who’s obnoxious to the tenants in the buildings he works in and awkward around anyone who wants more than a second of his time. He also gets drunk and picks fights in bars. Lee is called away from work because his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has a heart attack. He arrives at the hospital too late and didn’t get a chance to say his goodbyes. And he is…okay. He’s not ecstatic that his big brother has just died but he doesn’t react in a way you’d expect. Lee is shocked to learn that he’s been named guardian for his nephew Patrick (Hedges) and, in a series of flashbacks, we begin to understand Lee’s strange mannerisms.
Lee wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time Lee was married to Randi and they had three beautiful children. One night after happy-go-lucky Lee had finished partying with his friends, he went out to buy some more beer and returned to find his house ablaze with his hysterical wife outside. When being interviewed by the police, it transpires that Lee and his friends were in the basement of his house drinking, smoking joints and doing coke. When Randi kicked his buddies out she went to bed and Lee, deciding that the house was cold and that central heating would give his daughter a headache, built a fire in the livingroom fireplace before going for his beer. It’s further revealed that when he was on his way to get his beer he questioned himself as to whether he put a guard in front of the fire or not.
Deciding it didn’t matter, he continued on his drunken quest. When the police tell him there’s no law against that, he calmly accepts their response before taking a gun from a cop’s holster and tries to shoot himself, being stopped by a crowd of cops. This is where it’s clear why Lee is so shocked his brother made him his nephew’s guardian in his meticulously planned will. Lee is adament that Patrick should live elsewhere, either with relatives or his brother’s close friend and his wife. Anywhere, in fact other than with Lee himself or Patrick’s mother. It seems that the time between Joe’s diagnosis for his congenital heart condition and his passing, Patick’s mother had developed a drinking problem and spent time in a psychiatric facility, leaving them both long before Joe died.
Lee is forced to move back to his home-town, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and everything haunts him. He’s adament that if he’s to be Patrick’s guardian, it has to be somewhere else. But Patrick loves his life in the sleepy seaside town. He has two girlfriends; he’s on the hockey team; he’s in a band; he’s popular. But for Lee everything in this town reminds him of what he’ll never have and what he’s lost. He’s living in his dead brother’s house. His nephew is becoming an adult – something his own kids will never be. And his ex wife has remarried and is heavily pregnant.
To top it all off, the boat in which Lee, Patrick and Joe used to go out on the sea is falling apart and they can’t afford to maintain it. The realationship between Lee and Patrick is where we see the real Lee. Patrick is stubborn, argumentative, challenging…a 16 year old boy. He’s also confident and funny, but it’s how he challenges Lee and how his uncle responds where we get to glimpse at Lee’s good soul. He’s gruff, foul-mouthed and abrasive but he’s also incredibly patient and kind.
He’s in hell in Manchester. Because of the time of year, it’s too cold and the ground is too hard to bury Joe. So, as is the custom in these circumstances, it’s not uncommon to have a church service at the time while the mortiary keep the cadaver frozen until the Spring and have the burial then. Lee explains this to Patrick, and although he understands the logic behind it it’s a constant source of friction between the pair. Lee’s patience in dealing with the headstrong Patrick is truly beautiful and when the latter has a panic attack when rooting around the freezer in his kitchen, Lee’s unorthodox and comical approach to comforting his nephew is just lovely.
It’s important to remember that Lee’s children died very young, so he never got to wade into these muddy teenage waters carefully. He was dropped in the middle of it. The film progresses with more and more challenges for Lee, none more troubling than when, months later, Randi bumps into Lee in the street. She apologises to Lee, begging him for forgiveness for the things she said after their children died. What’s remarkable about this scene is that we don’t know what was said or how many times she said it but Michelle Williams will have you believing it was worse than anything you’ve ever heard before, but probably completely understandable given the circumstances.
Willams is in the film for only a few scenes in total but her performance , in that scene especially, will break you into a million pieces. Affleck’s reaction will grind those pieces into dust. We know that Casey Affleck is an outstanding actor but he’s is in the process of refining his craft to the point that he’ll slip quietly into his role as one of the greats. His performance in Manchester by the Sea is beautiful, messy, ugly, relatable…a host of superlatives and oxymorons. Lee is a man lost and Affleck doesn’t play his character, he lets the devastating story wash over him. If Michelle Williams is nominated there’s a great chance she could win an Academy Award as one of the actors with the least amount of screen time in the history of film.
But there isn’t a wasted second in her performance. She is astounding. Lucas Hedges delights and frustrates in equal measure. Not his performance, you understand. His character is so…adolescent! He’s so combatative and beligerent, yet so vulnerable. It’ll be a delight to watch where he goes from here. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is a treat for the eyes, as well as the soul. The coastal Massechusetts town has a lovely, cold winter glow. His long, lingering shots of his characters expose their vulnerabilities and flaws. Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography lights up the entire film, literally. The raw, naked light is, at times, uncomfortable. But it’s the brightness of the film as it’s juxtaposed with the dark subject matter that brings everything alive.
Oscar contender? Definitely!