Manchester by the Sea – Film Review

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Within the first five minutes of the new drama Manchester by the Sea from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, you see two sides of the same character.

At first view, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is horsing around with his young nephew on a fishing boat. He’s joking with the boy, teasing him about the dangers of falling over and how the youngster could become lunch for local sharks if he’s not careful. Then, in the blink of an eye, he’s suddenly a hard-working janitor, fixing leaking faucets, unclogging toilets. But there’s a difference. He’s just going through the motions. Clearly a life-changing event has occurred. His humor has gone since that time on the boat. He’s somehow different; haunted, as if something within was suddenly wrenched away. Eventually we will find out what, but there’s a lot to learn before we get there.

Sometimes called simply Manchester (not surprisingly it’s often confused with the nearby, larger city of Manchester), Manchester-by-the-Sea is a small fishing town in Essex County, Massachusetts. It’s where Lee’s family has lived and worked all their lives. At the beginning of the film, most of Lee’s relatives still live there, except for Lee. He’s now moved to Boston, living alone in a cramped basement apartment, working as the handyman for a building, fixing the plumbing, sealing pipes, shoveling snow, and even doing a little electrical work, which he reminds his boss is technically illegal. He shrugs away complaints from tenants when they sound off about his attitude, he ignores attempts from women who might flirt with him at the bar, and he’s not above using his fists to settle a dispute when he’s had a glass too many. Then he gets the phone call.

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Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a cardiac arrest. In a sudden flashback – which comes so abruptly you’re not immediately aware that it’s a flashback – we learn why the arrest is not altogether surprising. Lee drops everything and drives back to Manchester, but by the time he arrives at the hospital, the brother has already passed away. Immediately, we notice how people who once knew Lee from earlier days are now reacting to him. They’re careful with their words, hesitant in case they say the wrong thing. Yet Lee isn’t reacting any less grave than how we saw him when fixing leaking commodes back in Boston. He’s on the same, inarticulate level, thinking about what needs to be done, and only speaking when he needs to.

When Lee is told he is now to be the legal guardian to his sixteen-year-old nephew, it’s the man’s most animated reaction. In order to look after the troublesome teenager, Lee has either the choice of moving the boy in with him at his Boston apartment or moving back to Manchester, both of which are out of the question. Whatever caused Lee to move away from the fishing town those years ago threatens to overwhelm him again. He can’t think straight. When he emerges from the lawyer’s office after a reading of his brother’s will, informing him of his brother’s wishes, Lee can’t remember where he parked his car. It’s a minor conflict, but like the rest of the film, it’s a moment that enriches a film full of seemingly minor conflicts.

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When Lee’s life-changing event is fully revealed, it’s cruel; a situation made worse by the revelation that the man himself was probably at fault, though not in a way that could bring charges. The fragmented style of the flashbacks that come in uneven rhythms throughout leads us up to that certain moment, though, like Lee, we’re not prepared. It would make an emotionally empty shell of anyone.

There’s always the chance that for some audiences, the unspeakable tragic occurrence comes too late. Not everyone will warm to either the film’s length or the delay in getting to that all-important event. Lee’s manner, his self-contained sadness, and his determination to be left alone will hardly endear him to those whose attention span needs a more obvious emotional jolt to keep them invested. But it would also be their loss.

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Often cast a someone softly-spoken, in Manchester by the Sea, Affleck has perfected the art of silently grieving. This is his role. His character doesn’t always say a lot, and when he does it’s not exactly expressive or clear – the hesitancy is often overwhelming to the point where you want to say something in order to help him out – but from the look in his eyes, the frowns, the aside glances as his mind races, Affleck makes Lee Chandler a fascinating watch. He is quite superb.

So, too, is director Lonergan’s ensemble. There’s an overall feel of improvisation; not necessarily one where scenes are ad-libbed but where, through rehearsal and long discussions, there’s developed a natural quality within the cast suggesting that by the time camera rolled, each actor was thoroughly aware of his or her character. It’s as if they instinctively know what to say or do in any given situation, including their moments of humor; they appear to deliver things on the spot. Imagine an American version of a Mike Leigh film where the dialog grows from endless hours of free-range rehearsal, then condensed into a workable script, ready for filming. In Manchester by the Sea, no one makes a wrong move.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 136 Minutes     Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)

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