Affleck and Williams are devastating in Manchester
Positive buzz has been growing steadily for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea since its debut at last spring’s Sundance Film Festival, as critics and major film groups have been falling all over themselves to praise the movie and those involved in it. So, Manchester came to me with the onus of great expectations, some of which were met while others went unsatisfied. Make no mistake; this is a fine, well-made film that contains solid performances and perhaps the most moving moment I’ve witnessed in cinema this year. But as a whole, this ambitious work has its flaws, some of them glaring, preventing it from being the masterwork it’s touted to be.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a quiet man who’s resigned from life, having gone into hiding after suffering a great tragedy. Working as a maintenance man and contrary to nearly everyone he meets, a phone call one day forces him to come out of exile and return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea. His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, and Lee’s been asked to come back to help put his affairs in order. Once home, he’s told he’s now the legal guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a strong-willed teenager whose anger towards life reflects that of his uncle. This backs Lee into a corner, as he’s resistant to the idea of being responsible for someone else, especially in a town where his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) lives and reminders of his past are numerous.
The bulk of the film concerns Lee and Patrick trying to adjust to each other and the sudden changes in their lives. Each of these characters is in denial where their grief is concerned. Whereas Patrick is too young to realize this approach is futile, Lee is reaching the end of his rope, having come to the conclusion that some tragedies cannot be overcome.
Affleck is very good here, conveying a great deal with his downturned glances and resistance to eye contact, both powerful, subtle methods of showing the weight he carries. His efforts are the centerpiece, and the actor is more than up to the task of being the sounding board the rest of the cast plays off of. On par with Affleck is Williams, who, in only a few scenes, brings her character fully to life. A moment where Randi happens to run into Lee on the street is a showstopper as she struggles to confront the grief they share while he fends off her efforts, staying stubbornly withdrawn. This is acting of the highest quality, both performers giving fully of themselves in service of the story.
While these two roles are well rounded, Patrick rings false throughout. While denial may be his way of coping, the response this character has to his father’s death is borderline callous. Far more concerned with juggling his two girlfriends, playing in his band, and planning how to run the family fishing boat, Patrick comes off at times as nothing more than a plot point, an excuse to get Lee to return to his hometown. Equally troubling is Lonergan’s use of music, particularly during the key moment in which, via flashback, we witness the events that haunt Lee. The music is so obvious as to be a distraction and unnecessary as well, taking the viewer out of the scene that would have been just as powerful what with the fine work of the players on display.
Despite these missteps, the emotional core of Lonergan’s script survives intact, forcing us to contemplate our own methods of coping with the unexpected. Lee knows full well he will never be whole again, yet instead of ending his own life, he endures. Though some may see this as foolhardy, there’s something noble in the way he lives on, remembering those who’ve gone before him by his presence.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.