by Michael Drinan
Next to the film Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea should be at the top of your 2016 “Must See” list. I had read about the buzz surrounding this film after its Sundance premiere back in January, and the hype just grew bigger until the gushing reviews started to roll in one after another...and rightfully so. This film is as incredible a story as it is emotional. Every rave review is well deserved.
Manchester By The Sea was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, and tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor/handyman in Quincy who receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from heart disease. This forces Lee to travel to his hometown of Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts to take care of the many responsibilities involved with his brother, including Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Wonderfully played by Lucas Hedges). When Lee discovers his brother has not only appointed him Patrick’s guardian, but has also provided funds for Lee to relocate back to Manchester, he is perplexed and insists that he cannot move back to his hometown. This creates a problem since Patrick feels he has more to give up moving away from Manchester than Lee has moving away from Quincy, but the reasons behind Lee’s resistance aren’t clear and the film does a fantastic job at carefully unveiling Lee’s story.
One of the best things about this movie is the writing. It’s difficult to write dialogue that sounds real and genuine for movies, but Kenneth Lonergan fucking nailed it. The way these characters talk and act toward each other feels so human and relatable I almost felt as if I were eavesdropping on what these characters were saying and doing. The majority of the dialogue is emotional and serious, and at times tense, but Lonergan knew how to include humor to break the tension and keep the moviegoer hooked. It worked like a charm. Nothing felt unnatural and this was a huge factor in caring about the characters.
The movie seamlessly weaves flashback scenes with the present day, slowly unfolding the story without causing any confusion with the audience. It trusts the audience will follow along as it delves into Lee’s backstory and explains the reason Lee feels he cannot return to his hometown. There are no spoilers here, but once you learn the reason it completely opens up the rest of the story and makes sense of everything, from Lee’s demeanor to his way of life, and it packs one hell of an emotional punch to the throat.
This brings us to the actors, and what better place to start than with Casey Affleck. The man utterly shines in this role. The acting is subdued and subtle but the way Affleck approaches his character is astounding. Just by the way he walks and carries himself you can tell Lee is a troubled man, carrying a heavy burden. As much as I loved him in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and especially his performance in Gone Baby Gone, this role is easily Affleck’s best work to date and he will almost assuredly receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Michelle Williams also gives a noteworthy performance as Randi Chandler, Lee’s ex-wife, despite only appearing in spots throughout the movie. There’s tension and drama that is palpable between the two characters and reaches a crescendo when Randi and Lee run into each other walking around town. The scene between the two was the highlight of the film for me and Williams’ line “I should fucking burn in hell for the things I said to you” is forever burned into my memory. The scene broke me down, tears in my eyes, and reminded me of the “It’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting and the diner scene in Moonlight, by being the moment when all the cards are on the table and you now truly know these characters. Williams’ delivery in that scene, combined with the character precision of Affleck’s Lee, made me feel everything these characters were feeling. It was difficult watching that scene end, I loved it so much.
The pacing of the film was deliberate, taking much-needed care in the storytelling and character development that allowed the emotional crux of the plot to really hit home. Even though there were short moments when I wondered where all of this was leading, once I got there I understood. The movie ends in the simplest of ways, neatly wrapping up the experience these characters had gone through. Initially, I didn’t like the ending; I felt there should be more. However, after thinking about it for a day, it was clear to me how necessary and appropriate the ending was. Maybe I was just sad that it was the end.
Look, I can’t tell you what to do and I know that the Star Wars film Rogue One is about to be released in a couple of days and that may take priority in many people’s movie-going lives. I know it will for me. However, I urge you to see this film. Like Moonlight, the film gives viewers an emotional, relatable, and at times, funny movie experience with master actors commanding their characters with absolute grace and purpose. Also like Moonlight, it will receive Oscar consideration and it’s gearing up to be a thrilling showdown reminiscent of 2008, when No Country For Old Men went up against There Will Be Blood for Best Picture. This year, it will be Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea. Take your pick, both are fucking incredible.