After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a spirited 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised. Bonded by the man who held their family together, Lee and Patrick struggle to adjust to a world without him.
We deal with personal tragedy differently. We can be expressive and show to the world how hurt we are, hold it all in and let it kill us slowly inside, or just brush it aside and carry on with our lives. What it does is break off a piece of our heart. Something we can never mend again. “Manchester by the Sea” is a heart-breaking portrayal of the love and loss of people that have built you into who you are, driven by a central performance for the ages.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a secluded janitor living in Quincy, Massachusetts. He quietly goes through his days fixing peoples apartments and not getting the gratitude he deserves. He shovels the snow off his front porch every day for a tiny basement apartment he lives in, and gets into bar fights at nights if anyone looks at him differently. One day while shovelling the snow away off his porch once again, he gets a phone call from a friend of past times saying that his brother Joe has had a heart attack. He rushes to his aid but is too late, as he finds that he has passed away. The family lawyer informs Lee that his brother has left him as sole guardian of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) making Lee reluctantly leave his job and come back to the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to take care of him; a town he’s a legend to the people who reside in (for all the wrong reasons)…a town he once thought he has truly escaped from.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the playwright has written a tragedy littered with black comedy that makes the mundane things in life riveting. Like life, we don’t have perfect conversations with people. It’s never a simple back and forth but rather a conversation full of hesitations, awkward silences, or those one or two “umms” in between. Lonergan has written characters that are like people in real life, and that’s what makes Manchester so special. It captures those tragic moments where it’s heart-breaking and soul destroying, but at the same time it’s never played out the way you would think it would play out like all things in real life. For example, funerals aren’t always a sombre affair. There will always be that one person who makes that one inappropriate joke. Or if someone close to you has been diagnosed with a life-changing disease, it will always bring out the dysfunctionality of any family during that tough time. These moments captured on screen, all beautifully shot, make this a rather special film because there are moments in this film that make it relatable, and credit has to be given to him for writing such a human script.
None of this can be played out without his actors and there are three particular performances that need to be called out here. Michelle Williams plays the estranged divorced-wife to Lee. We see her mostly through Lee’s flashbacks; unravelling more about why he’s become the man he is. She’s her own woman and won’t take shit from anyone, but at the same time can shatter like glass with an instant tap. It’s another wonderful addition to a plethora of past performances from Williams. Lucas Hedges, who plays Lee’s nephew Patrick, is a future star in the making. Patrick has brushed off the death of his father like it was yesterday’s news and wants to carry on life like usual. He’s got other teenage problems to worry about, like girls and his band. He doesn’t want his uncle there to take care of him. He can take care of himself but doesn’t realise how much his uncle needs him to keep sane, and without Hedges, Affleck couldn’t give half of the performance that he gives in this film.
And what a performance. Back in October in 2016, when I first saw this with my brother at a gala screening in the BFI London Film Festival, we agreed that Casey Affleck should be rewarded with every acting accolade there possibly was for his performance as Lee Chandler (a role which Matt Damon was originally cast for). This is a masterclass in acting. He portrays a man who’s been in so much pain for such a long time, it’s become the armour of his life. He’s become someone who knows nothing else but sadness, so much so that his reaction to those moments are…well there is no reaction. He walks hunched like all the troubles in the world are on his shoulders. When people compliment him for doing something, he brushes it aside. Affleck and Lonergan unravel Lee through flashbacks, letting us understand more about the man who used to be the once heart of the town. When that big reveal happens of why Lee is like the man he is now, it’s a silent gut-wrenching and harrowing moment. And one scene that will surely be used in acting classes in years to come, the long overdue conversation between himself and his ex-wife is a tear-jerker, showcasing two actors at the top of their game.
A film that portrays life and tragedy at its most genuine, and it’s most raw. Like life, it shows you can always find the funny side of things in those moments of sadness and heartbreak. Lonergan has created a film that will be studied for its purest portrayal of everyday life, with a flawless performance by Casey Affleck. It will make you cry (well it made two grown men cry).