Manchester By The Sea

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is scraping by in a Boston suburb, working as a janitor with a pretty poor line in customer service. His days are filled with unclogging toilets and being rude to his tenants and his nights are filled with drunken bar room brawls. Basically, this is not the portrait of a happy man, but when we first meet Lee we have no real idea what’s going on. Everything changes when Lee is called back to Manchester, NH following the death of his brother Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler). Going back to Manchester brings back some difficult memories from the past for Lee that threaten to fracture his fragile state of mind. Throw into the mix that he has also been made the guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

There’s no mistaking that Manchester By the Sea is a very, very good film. I don’t think it is a film that you just passively watch, it felt more like something that I experienced. While this is a very accomplished film, with a truly human story it’s all really difficult to say that I actively enjoyed it. Since I watched the film I’ve been toying with the idea of whether that is actually a bad thing or not? It may not be an enjoyable film but it is something that I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about, if nothing else it’s an incredibly profound film.

Manchester By the Sea is a film that is built on strong performances with Casey Affleck being front and centre throughout. I think it’s safe to say that this is the best performance that I’ve ever seen Casey Affleck give and an Oscar nomination seems to be a foregone conclusion. When we first meet Lee, he’s very much a broken man. A shadow of a man living in some kind of self imposed exile, eschewing pretty much all human interaction. It feels like someone who has given up on life but is not quite ready to stop living. In other hands it might have been easy to give a really over the top and showy performance. The best thing about Affleck’s performance is just how little he actually does, he’s incredibly subtle and it is incredibly effective.

It’s not just Affleck that gives a great performance, there is superb support all across the cast. Kyle Chandler plays not too far from type as a gruff, but loveable father. He’s not a million miles from Coach Taylor but I just find Kyle Chandler infinitely watchable, he has an easy charm to him that makes him an engaging screen presence. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is really good as Patrick, his relationship is with Lee is one of the lighter elements of the film, providing some warmth and charm. It’s in his relationship with Patrick that Lee looks like he might actually be able to find some level of peace of mind, even if he might never make a full recovery. However, one of the best bits about the film is also one of the biggest weaknesses. Michelle Williams gives an absolutely stunning performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, the scene the two of them share is one of the most heartbreaking scenes that I have seen in a long time. The real problem is that is she’s not onscreen for anywhere near long enough. I would have gladly sat through another 20 minutes of the film to get some more insight into her character.

As Lee returns to Manchester we start to piece together what happened in his past that has made him the (ghost of a) man he is today. We hear people talk in whispers about him being ‘the Lee Chandler rather than just Lee Chandler hinting at something deeper and darker going on. Director Kenneth Longergan uses flashbacks to really good effect to provide some colour to Lee’s life, both literally and metaphorically. Whereas the present day is at winter time, with everything cold and oppressive the flashbacks are set in the warmer shades of spring.

Manchester By the Sea is a really powerful film, and it’s one that’s not afraid to do something differently. This isn’t necessarily a film about someone who comes back from the edge, it doesn’t preach that everything is recoverable. Instead it’s a story about someone who is very close to the point of being beyond redemption and I think that’s an interesting idea to play with. That it isn’t always about happy endings and that sometimes somethings are just broken and that’s the way they have to be. This is a stunning film but not always one that is easy to watch, still I think it is definitely worth it – it’s a film that should be experienced.

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