Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler a broken, defeated man who is in an epic struggle to move on from unfathomable tragedy. He lives in Boston in a one room basement apartment and works for an ungrateful landlord-boss as a handy man for several apartments in four different buildings. He is a reliable, honest and hardworking, but not terribly friendly, employee. He has no time for chit-chat and if you give him attitude he goes from taciturn to surly in half a second. His anger is just below the surface and not difficult to elicit. It’s not until later in the film that we understand the true weight he carries, and why the anger, as well as many other negative emotions, simmer and boil.
When faced with becoming a guardian for his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Casey refuses and wants no part of it. There are so many reasons why Lee doesn’t want to do this; especially since this involves going back to Manchester by the Sea, his hometown, to live. Manchester is a suburban sea town on Boston’s North Shore and although he is a mere 80 minutes away, he is far enough away to feel a bit safer. But this precarious safety is drastically challenged when he goes home. He can no longer avoid his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) or the ineffable tragedy that is finally revealed in a long cinematic flashback that resembles an elegy.
Manchester By The Sea is a terrific film, one of the best of the year. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan has crafted a brilliant story about a man who is faced with something bigger than himself, bigger than he can overcome. The film feels very much like real life and not like a movie at all. This is accomplished by the improvisational feel the entire film has. Scenes feel like unrehearsed moments that are so raw, they’re band aids being ripped off a wound. Much of this realism is accomplished by including everydayness of the town and the people in it: a bad teenage band practicing in a garage, not remembering where you parked your car, not having enough money to fix a boat engine. Like real life, emotions and family are messy and not easily controlled. We may hope to overcome our demons created by the past, but life isn’t a social media Meme, it’s much more brutal and complicated. The truth is powerful and often painful. Surprisingly there is a great deal of humor in this film, and the humor, feels real as well. It often breaks the tension, particularly in the scenes between Lee and Patrick, which is an uncomfortable bond, for sure. Laughter also comes from the natural sarcasm of tough New Englanders.
Affleck perfectly plays Lee, full of guilt and self-hatred. A powder keg of rage, mostly directed at himself, Affleck is remarkably understated and muted. When the keg blows it is sudden and sharp, but never over the top. Affleck shows amazing restraint and there are no loud rages or screaming, it’s all quiet, but very palatable. What is unsaid is much more powerful than what is articulated and explained. Lee, in his own right, is a hero for understanding his limitations and never raising the expectations of those around him. It is a tour-de-force that will surely bring him an Oscar nomination. All the acting is great, including Hedges in a breakout performance and Williams as the damaged ex-wife, who has tried to “move on;” but in one very painful scene near the end of the film, we discover she hasn’t moved on at all. The film could be shown in acting classes as an example of magnificent realism.
What is remarkable is that the film, even when dealing with such heavy themes, has momentum. The scenes that often feel like snapshots are juxtaposed against operatic sequences of almost unbearable intensity. You still root for Lee, even though you know he can probably never “beat it.”
Before warned, Manchester by the Sea is difficult to watch, and it isn’t for those you cannot shake tragedy off easily. But you shouldn’t let this stop you from going, because it’s fantastic and like nothing else you will ever see again. But like a great play, you won’t go twice, it would be too difficult to feel twice. It should be experienced, absorbed and then you walk away. It doesn’t’ surprise me that Lonergan comes from theater, because the experience here feels very intimate and intense, like great theater.