Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan | 138 minutes | drama | Actors: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Michelle Williams, Ben O’Brien, Ruibo Qian, Chloe Dixon, Tom Kemp, Ellie Teeves, Oscar Wahlberg, Kara Hayward, Josh Hamilton, Wendy Overly,

You sometimes read about it in the newspaper: family dramas. Sometimes one of the family members has blown the plug, but it can also be an unfortunate combination of circumstances that can cause things to go horribly wrong within a family. What happens to the bereaved when such a drama takes place within the family? Screenwriter and director Kenneth Lonergan took that question as his starting point when he wrote the story for ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016). His friend and colleague Matt Damon – with whom he made the film ‘Margaret’ in 2011 – joined in; initially he was also going to direct the film, but that fell through due to contractual obligations elsewhere. Although Damon was originally intended to play the lead role, that was also not possible because he was working on another film at the time when Lonergan, who had decided to direct himself, wanted to start shooting. John Krasinski was briefly in the picture, but eventually Casey Affleck was roped in for the lead role. He’ll be eternally grateful to Matt Damon for dropping out of the role, as both the film and Affleck himself are frontrunners in just about every battle for the big movie awards. And rightly so, because the film shows in a penetrating way what grief and guilt can do to someone. Incidentally, Damon remained linked to the project as a producer.

‘Manchester by the Sea’ is set in the state of Massachusetts. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an introverted and life-scarred man who leads a spartan existence as a janitor or. handyman in an apartment complex in suburban Boston. When not at work, he drowns his hard-earned money at the local bar. It should be clear: Lee does not enjoy life at all. As we get to know him better, we see that he is punishing himself for past events with this rock-hard existence. His routine of unclogging toilets and shoveling snow is abruptly interrupted by a phone call; his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack. Something Lee already sensed coming, because Joe had been suffering from serious heart failure for some time. Sadly, by the time he arrives in his hometown of Manchester-By-The-Sea, Joe has already passed away. It’s up to Lee to break the sad news to Joe’s sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and arrange the funeral.

Patrick is a typical teenager: he can’t decide which girl he likes better, so he hooks up with both, he plays in a rock band and has a spot on the school’s ice hockey team. Because his alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) abandoned the family years ago, he lived with his father. The news that his father is no longer there does not immediately reach him. Lee is shocked when he learns that Joe has designated him as Patrick’s guardian in his will. That someone needs him is a feeling that terrifies Lee. Why that is, is only revealed halfway through the film, in a scene that sends shivers down your body. Lee once had an ordinary family, with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three small children, in this same Manchester-By-The-Sea. And then it suddenly went horribly wrong. Ever since that pitch-black day, Lee has been torn by an intense sense of guilt and grief; he does not allow himself any room for other emotions. And he would rather never come to Manchester again. That his cousin Patrick needs him now forces him to confront himself.

Given the themes, you expect ‘Manchester by the Sea’ to be a heavy film. Fortunately, Lonergan also grants its viewers warm moments and there is even humor (especially thanks to Lucas Hedges who, like Patrick, portrays a wonderful teenager, who is a tough hunk on the one hand, but on the other hand is as insecure as anything). Because, as the writer/director claims, “No matter how incredibly tragic a situation can be, and no matter how deeply you grieve, life goes on.” The heart of the film, however, is Casey Affleck, who plays the best role of his career. Hardened and bitter by life, he has completely cut himself off from everything that makes life worth living. A punishment he believes he has deserved for his negligence. Since we only discover later how the fork is in the stem, his cold aloofness is not immediately explained and you have to keep watching to really get to know Lee. Slowly we see him thawing, in contact with Patrick, but also with Randi, whom he is forced to bump into again due to the circumstances. That Michelle Williams is one of the best actresses of her generation, she proves here once again; the confrontations between Randi and Lee are among the most intense emotionally in the film, leaving you gasping for breath on a regular basis.

Kenneth Lonergan is fascinated by family relationships – in his directorial debut, ‘You Can Count on Me’ (2000) revolved around a brother and a sister, and ‘Margaret’ revolved around a mother and daughter. The relationship between fathers and sons – biological or surrogate – is central here. Lonergan is an expert at observing and crystallizing the mutual relationships, and also knows how to get the best out of his actors. The strength of the film is therefore the way in which Affleck, Hedges and Williams have mastered their characters – with all their complexity and sadness. Lonergan sends them not in a straight line to the final scene, but down the bumpy, uneasy and unpredictable roads of grief. He also continues that line in the editing, music and the story as a whole. Frayed edges are not smoothed out but make the film purer and more intense. A film that makes you silent.

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