I first saw Manchester By the Sea at the London Film Festival after missing out the initial press screening, as I had to see a different film before conducting an interview with the filmmaker the following day. I was finally able to catch the third possible screening after trying to get a rush-queue ticket for the big gala screening. However, it was worth the hassle—I knew straight away that it was the best film I would see all year hands down.
It’s a film about Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a man who has turned in on himself after a tragedy that he was responsible for due to his bad behaviour. The incident has forced him to leave his small town (the Manchester of the title) in Massachusetts for another small town. It’s only an hour away, but far enough that he can have the anonymity he needs to attempt to heal.
He is soon forced to return to Manchester after his brother dies from cardiac arrest and has to look after his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The tragic event that made Lee flee the town to begin with slowly unfolds over the first hour through a series of expertly edited flashbacks. When the reveal finally happens, it’s one of the most devastating portrayals of a life-changing mistake ever committed to film. The scene of the tragedy was criticised by some reviewers because the director employed the much-used and iconic “Adagio in G Minor;” personally, I think it adds a sense of operatic horror to what viewers are witnessing and is therefore justified.
The choice to make the characters blue-collar Americans is very rare in today’s day and age. If you think about it, films are almost always made about upper-middle-class or wealthy characters. In this way Manchester By the Sea follows in the lineage of films about working-class American life, typified by the work of John Sayles, such as Limbo and Matewan. It’s very much a film you could have seen Sayles making during his ’80s and ’90s heyday. There are also small shades of the Boston working-class life of Good Will Hunting, which is hardly surprising, as Matt Damon was originally attached to the project to make it his directorial debut and star, and he did eventually stay on as a producer.
Kenneth Lonergan wrote the script and eventually directed the film, and despite being very much a New Yorker born and bred, he is able to understand the blue-collar world of America. He even taps into the work of Jack Kerouac who though primarily known as a coastal dweller, was an all-American kid from Lowell, Massachusetts and reflected that in much of his work. The film has become known for its bleakness, and it certainly has its moments, but Lonergan is also able to inject much-needed humour into the interactions between Lee and Patrick.
It’s very rare that I agree with what films win at the Oscars, but Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester By the Sea was one for the ages. By his mannerisms, his perceived lack of emotion, and his eyes, he was able to portray the interior torment that Lee is going through. It’s a strange performance to win the Oscar, because it’s all about what isn’t shown and as a result it isn’ “showy.” Affleck is one of the few actors who knows how to use restraint in a performance, his role in The Assassination of Jesse James is another textbook example. There was some controversy over his win due to accusations by some female co-workers from 2010. It has shades of irony, because here his role is a man who has done truly horrible actions and now must live with the consequences.
The supporting cast is also excellent across the board. Michelle
Williams, who would seem according to the poster and even some trailers to be a co-lead, has an important presence as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, but her scenes don’t tally up much screen-time. She has her moment to shine—a much talked-about scene where Randi and Lee run into each other and talk for the first time in years. Matthew Broderick also has a great bit of stunt casting as Patrick’s mother’s evangelical husband.
Lucas Hedges as the nephew Patrick is just outstanding, a truly perfect example of how a strong actor in a supporting role can elevate a film. He is able to perfectly capture the transformation he is going through, and holds his own in scenes with Affleck. He also brings a lot of comedic relief to the film: I would say the film should have been classified at a comedy at times, because it has more laughs than most “comedies.” Kara Hayward of Moonrise Kingdom fame plays one of Patrick’s two girlfriends. One of the film’s biggest punchlines comes when Patrick proclaims to Lee that “I got two girlfriends and I’m in a band. You’re a janitor in Quincy.”
Manchester By the Sea is the kind of adult drama that is so rare in this world of superheroes and big-budget thrills; it’s almost remarkable that it was made now. It harkens back to the days of films about men on the down and out in the ‘70s, like Fat City or Five Easy Pieces. This is only the third film Kenneth Lonergan has directed. His previous was the sprawling Margaret, which was released years after the fact due to multiple lawsuits and a lengthy post-production process; his friend Martin Scorsese stepped into re-edit the film. However, this is an extraordinary rebirth for a filmmaker who was considered at one point persona non-grata.
The special features include a making-of feature, commentary from Lonergan, and three short deleted scenes. There were some reports that Lonergan tinkered with the edit from the film’s Sundance premiere, so maybe they were included in that version, I don’t know for sure