Kenneth Lonergan may have only given us three features over 16 years, but every time he has a tale to tell you can rest assured that story is one worth experiencing. His latest, Manchester By The Sea, is no exception. Featuring a performance from Casey Affleck that should solidify him as one of this generation’s greatest working actors, the film conveys a deeply affecting exploration of loss and grief that gets under your skin and stays there for days on end.
Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a lonely Boston janitor who is called back to his titular hometown after the sudden death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Upon arrival Lee learns his brother left his only son, the teenage Patrick (Lucas Hedges), in his care. Lee is barely able to keep himself on track in life and has next to no desire to be put in charge of someone else, which is not something Patrick wants either, but given the circumstance they see no other option. So, begrudgingly, these two broken men must come together to fulfill the final wishes of a man they both loved.
Manchester-By-The-Sea is the kind of town most people never leave. Lee’s departure and the reason for his continued distance is something of a mystery at the start of the film, but Lonergan slowly reveals the reasons for his complicated feelings toward his hometown through a series of intermittent flashbacks that come and go so unexpectedly that their presence is initially jarring. We see Lee with his brother, Joe, on the family boat when Patrick was still a small child. We also see him deeply in love with his wife, Randy (Michelle Williams), and their young three children. With each reveal there is a tidal wave of emotion no living soul will be able to resist. I cried three times during my initial viewing, and the first one happened just 20 minutes into the film.
As we begin to better understand the cause of Lee’s apparent detachment, Manchester By The Sea digs deep into the struggles we all face when confronted by the finality of death. Lonergan pulls no punches in this exploration, choosing instead to let each blow land with the full force it is conveyed by his tremendous cast. Each character has questions about life and themselves that must be dealt with on an individual basis, but they are united through the events that throw their lives into turmoil.
And really, it’s those events that allow Manchester By The Sea to tap into something deeply rooted in our own collective reality. Death has a funny way of devastating everyone in their own way, and in its wake it is impossible to know how people will react. Many choose to deal with their pain in a quiet manner that is not unlike Lee’s own desires after learning of Joe’s passing, but to do so only makes the grieving process more difficult. You have to allow people to grieve in their own way, but as Lonergan shows us it is never easy to watch those you love suffer.
Pulling off a story this heavy without taking shortcuts requires tough conversations and quiet moments of reflection, but with the help of legendary cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (who captures the quiet New England town in a way that should considerably aide in the area’s tourism) and the everyman sense of humor that runs throughout Lonergan’s work there is an ever-so-slight sweetness that keeps the film from ever feeling too cold. One moment, when Lee agrees to help Patrick get laid, sets a new bar for onscreen awkwardness that left me completely unsettled. These elements also help bring the world of the Chandlers to life in a way that feels immediately human. The events and emotions expressed throughout the story are likely to happen—or perhaps they already have happened—in your own life. You don’t know these people, but you understand their journey because it’s one we all take.
2016 will soon come to an end, and within two or three months all the awards season hype and fanfare will have come to an end as well. While I believe Manchester By The Sea will be a hit with those who vote for trophies and plaques I think the real success of the film will be revealed through its lingering relevancy one, two, or even ten years from now. Lonergan has already proven himself to be a storyteller who strives to capture moments and experiences that we all go through, which in turn gives his material a shelf life that is much longer than most films, and Manchester By The Sea is the best expression of that goal he has given us. This is a timeless tale that will be affecting audiences for the rest of our lives, and because of that I believe it is the absolute best film of the year.
Bravo, Lonergan. Bravo.