Right from its Sundance debut in January, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating human drama Manchester By The Sea was pegged to be one of 2016’s most memorable films, and now that it is finally opening 10 months later that fact hasn’t changed. As I say in my video review above, this is simply a gut-wrenching story of the way an unspeakable family tragedy impacts lives in a small Massachusetts fishing village. A career-best performance from Casey Affleck and generally superb acting all around lifts this often-depressing and a bit overlong tale into the category of something you might see on stage by an Arthur Miller or William Inge as it chronicles the effects of a great American tragedy.
The status of Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) as one of stage and film’s great contemporary writers comes to full fruition here as he lays out the story in the form of a human puzzle. This is a movie that should be absorbed without a whole lot of information going in, so excuse the sketchy plot description that follows. In fact, for up to an hour we aren’t quite sure exactly what is going on as the screenplay’s structure presents the main character, Lee (Affleck), at different points through flashbacks into present day, and back and forth. We first meet him working as a bit of hot-tempered handyman, getting into bar fights and seemingly rudderless. But then back in Manchester we see the happy and well-adjusted father of three kids and husband to Randi (Michelle Williams) in a more idyllic kind of life. Then we see townspeople referring to him in a negative light, but we aren’t quite sure why. The film darts back and forth, creating a bit of mystery.
There is also his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Joe is someone Lee has always looked up to, but when he becomes ill and is hospitalized things change. Joe dies, and his wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) is unable to care for Patrick, and Lee reluctantly comes back to Manchester to serve as the boy’s guardian. This relationship becomes the thrust of the film’s second half as the answers to Lee’s behavior, the end of his marriage, and the tragic reasons for it are revealed. Much of this is bleak stuff to be sure, but ultimately there is some hope and resolution as life moves forward even when you think it can’t.
Affleck — in a role originally pegged for Matt Damon, who serves as one of the producers — could not be better. It’s an enormously tricky balancing act but he captures Lee perfectly without the benefit of a linear storytelling structure. A final scene near the end where he runs into Randi will reduce the audience to tears, even as it provides much-needed closure. Williams is magnificent here and does much with a role that is just a few scenes. The real discovery is Hedges, who expertly navigates Patrick’s typical teen growing pains, mixed with a deep sense of loss and confusion that is never overplayed. Chandler, as always, delivers nicely in his supporting turn.
Do you plan to see Manchester By The Sea? Watch my video review and let us know what you think.