Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, captures brilliantly the true struggle of life, while also highlighting its more awkward, unintentionally funny side. This film took be on an incredible (get ready for a lot of hyperbolic words in this review) emotional journey; from laughter/giggles, to concerned empathy and all the way to the point where I was struggling to hold back tears. I was – more than once – overwhelmed by the completely human story that, Manchester by the Sea focused on, and my adoration for it is boundless, as you’ll see in this review. So let’s get to it, and explore all the achievements of this film.
The story primarily focuses on, Lee Chandler – played by Casey Affleck – who is informed that his brother, Joe Chandler – played by Kyle Chandler – has passed away. Lee must return to a place that he knows he will struggle to be in and help to not only deal with the funereal proceedings, but also support his nephew, Patrick – played by Lucas Hedges – who has just lost his father. Both Patrick and Lee have a lot of difficult things to now deal with, but Lee’s may be the biggest of all of them.
What I noticed almost immediately with, Manchester by the Sea was just how real it felt; from the presentation of the characters and their characteristics, to the everyday slog of life and even the dialogue that was sometimes forced out of characters in moments of discomfort. This is a film that perfectly captures the day-to-day of everyday life. Kenneth Lonergan not only knows how to write people in a way that seems genuine, he also knows how to then present that on-screen.
And there is no better example of this, than the films lead, Lee (Casey Affleck). Here is a very unassuming man; someone who isn’t a hero of the day, someone who isn’t there to be the charismatic lead of a film; a person who you can’t help but be charmed by – nope. This is a simple man who does his menial job and primarily exists in the background. I mean, even the film has him physically existing in the background of scenes. In the first couple of scenes in the film, it’s not Lee who’s the focus, it’s the people whose light fixture he’s fixing, or toilet he’s plunging. It couldn’t be clearer from the outset just how low on the totem pole, Lee is.
This then makes his journey in the film, all the more engrossing. With, Lee being presented as the every man, someone who isn’t on the top of the world, it then makes relating to, and then empathising with his story, that much more approachable of a task.
It is clear that, Lee has been through some hardships in his life and that’s made clear by just how he passively exists within his environment (sometimes the only way he can feel alive is to get drunk and pick a fight with some random guys). But to then add-on top of that the death of his brother, we really do become a part of his journey. Not only do we want to see him overcome this new hardship in his life, but we also want to be there to learn what his relationship was like with his brother (through flashbacks which cleverly differentiate themselves from the main narrative) and also what it was that drove him to become this socially-struggling recluse.
The film delivers on all of that and more. We really are taken on a no-holds-bar journey with Lee, where we see just exactly what it was that led him to this point in his life, while also seeing his struggle with the recent death of his brother and the unwanted need to cope with the new challenges/responsibilities in his life (the main one being his nephew Patrick). Expect to really understand this man by the end of the film.
But all of this couldn’t have been fully achieved without a stellar performance to back it up. Thankfully the film has that – Casey Affleck is absolutely faultless in his presentation of the character. There is a reason Affleck has been picking up so many, ‘Best Actor’ awards recently for the role and he’ll undoubtedly go forth to win the Oscar. But what I think is the most interesting thing about the performance, in comparison to the one that was winning all the awards last year – Leonardo DiCaprio in, The Revenant – is that this one is a quiet, reserved, sometimes emotionally distant portrayal of a character. Instead of grandiose efforts to be noticed by the academy (which DiCaprio had no shame in doing) Affleck’s performance is the exact opposite of everything that was praised last year (and I was one of those people praising). It is performances like Affleck’s that should stand out, and I see that now.
Anyway; Lee is a man of few words and sometimes those words aren’t always the most appropriate for the situation. Lee is an anti-protagonist almost. His reluctance to want to do anything, even though it is the right and necessary thing to do, makes him someone who you almost never see leading a film like this. And all of it is done brilliantly by Casey Affleck. His ability to control your attention in a scene, despite saying very little or showing no real emotion, is a testament to how gravitationally pulling he is. It then also means that when he does allow some emotion to eke out, however small it may be, it is all the more potent and resonant within the moment. Not only is his nomination for all the awards deserved, but the continuous wins are all very much deserved.
But the film is not all doom and gloom. There is a surprising amount of levity to the film, and a lot of that comes from the honest relationship between Lee and Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The two have a way of interacting with one another that is so joyously true. They talk to one another and they take pot shots at one another, in ways that you can’t help but laugh at. Their bond in the film (which of course takes time to grow) is one of the shining elements of the film; one that I soaked up every second of. And Lucas Hedges performance in the film is one that also stands-out. He is there supporting Affleck in the majority of scenes and he too brings so much effortless acting to every moment he’s on the screen. He’ll certainly be an actor to keep your eyes on going forth (he will for me anyway).
So Manchester by the Sea is a film that will surely tug – nae, punch – on your heartstrings, but it will also be one that’ll produce a few laughs. But… there was one moment in the film that almost sent me spiralling completely out of the experience of watching the film. An experience that in one way was good because of the impact it had on me, but in another way was bad because that impact was so emotionally shattering, that a small amount of time went by where I was completely disconnected from properly focusing on the film. (No Spoilers) in the middle of the film there is a scene that dug its way down into my emotional core and set off a small explosive device. This scene was so overwhelming that I lost connection with my film watching experience for a little bit. I struggled to collect myself, and for a short time lost focus on the particulars of the scene that followed it. Now that says a lot about just how deep I was into the film, that when it came to that moment, I was completely wiped out by it. I felt such a connection to the characters that I then wasn’t prepared for the gut punch it later delivered. So I have to commend the film for being able to pull me in so much. The only issue was post gut punch, it did take me a little while to join back up with the film and I did miss a scene or two because of it.
This isn’t necessarily a complaint about the film; actually in a weird way I think it’s more of a compliment. Director Kenneth Lonergan succeeded so much prior to that scene and continued to do so for the rest of the film. I guess I just felt the need to vent about the effect that moment in the film had on me – I needed to just talk about it and get it off my chest. That’s how affecting this film is, it will implant itself deep into your head and then just toy with your emotions. I’m sure the girl sitting behind me in the cinema who was uncontrollably weeping for 5 minutes would agree.
I want to end my review by talking about why Lonergan is also deserving of much praise when it comes to his very noticeable expertise as a director. One of the primary rules of filmmaking is ‘show don’t tell’. It’s a visual medium and you can communicate so much to the audience by showing them something, however subtle. Lonergan does that in droves. I spoke earlier about how Lee is placed in scenes. The blocking that is used to communicate Lee’s status in society, how he is treated and seen by others, all of that is very simply told us by having Lee not be the focus of the scene. Other people are in front of him and it is they who have things to say. Nothing is ever overtly said, there isn’t some dialogue that lobs that information at you. We are simply shown it through the blocking of characters in a scene.
There are many examples of this (show don’t tell) like how the one bedroom apartment that Lee lives in is a below ground apartment, thus you see the footsteps of other people walking by outside; they’re above him, they are higher on the totem pole than he is, he’s just slumped, drunk on his couch, wallowing in misery. Kenneth Lonergan really does highlight just how technically sound he is as a director and he also shows that he can write and construct a truly beautiful, yet heart-wrenching story. No wonder this film is gaining the praise that it is.
I, by the end of this film was completely wiped out. I was leaving the cinema and going to grab some food before heading home, and I was genuinely struggling to keep it together. Manchester by the Sea is a film that rips you apart emotionally and leaves you in a puddle of spent tears and heartbreak on the ground, while also still somehow delivering something beautiful and ever so slightly uplifting – what an achievement.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind; I am absolutely recommending, Manchester by the Sea. What an utterly sublime film, one that will stick with me for some time to come, and is my current favourite for the Award season (though I’ve still to see, ‘La La Land’). But still, get out there and see this film, and maybe bring a hanky. This film is the antithesis of a human story, with all the awkward interactions, difficult decisions and uncontrollable hits from life.
I would love to know what you thought of, Manchester by the Sea, or my review! Please leave any comments down below. If you’re feeling generous, perhaps you’d like to follow my blog, or follow me over in Twitter – @GavinsRamblings? That you you’re always up-to-date on when I post a new review. Anyway, thank you so much for taking the time to read this, you swell human being!