I’ve been hearing about Manchester by the Sea for a year now. The film premiered all the way back at Sundance in January, and it’s been acclaimed by critics ever since. It’s the latest film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), which was originally going to feature a totally different cast/director before. Matt Damon was going to direct and star in the film before he had to drop out of doing both entirely, but Damon stays on as one of the producers of this film. This ends up being a blessing in disguise, as Lonergan redeems himself for the troubles of his last film Margaret (behind the scenes troubles, not problems with the film. Look it up) and Casey Affleck emerges as one of this generation’s finest actors in this heartbreaking but powerful film. Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of the year.
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor working in a Boston suburb when he’s informed that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away as the result of heart failure. In the aftermath of this, Lee learns that Joe chose him as the sole guardian of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This forces Lee to come back to his hometown of Manchester, a community that continues to haunt him to the present for previous reasons (that I won’t get into with this review).
Manchester runs at around 2 and a half hours, which sounds like a bit of a strain given the simple story. But the performances by everyone in the film, most notably the one given by Casey Affleck, help make this film feel incredibly special. Affleck plays the grief-stricken brother with a quiet intensity that we’ve seen Affleck in many of his previous performances. Lee has seen heartbreak for years, and the sadness in Affleck’s eyes from those years resonates upon the audience. Affleck is considered the front-runner for the Best Actor trophy, and I can’t really find any way to disagree with that argument. Few performances have moved me this much emotionally in 2016, and I look forward to Affleck getting some long-awaited attention for his incredible turn in this film.
The rest of the performances are phenomenal. Kyle Chandler only appears in the film through flashbacks, but he does some of his best film work here in Manchester. Lucas Hedges is an actor that should be on the rising after this film. His performance is almost on par with Affleck’s turn, and hopefully many of the awards folks will recognize that (although its unlikely). Michelle Williams has a supporting role here in the film as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, and while her role is brief compared to the other performances, her scenes stand-out as some of the best and most emotionally draining in the entire film. I can’t quite get into why that is out of fear of spoilers, but trust me when I say so. Expect her to get some awards attention for this performance.
The film is also beautifully directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan. It’s a film that’s heavy on character and the drama surrounding the characters through this tragedy, but Lonergan shoots the real life city of Manchester with a kind of cold beauty toward it all. It’s a living, breathing New England city that feels authentic and real. The New England accents never feel forced or unnatural by any of the performers (Kyle Chandler’s New England accent isn’t half bad). It’s a community that feels like a real community, if that makes any sense. It’s a shame that Lonergan spent the better part of five years in courtrooms with his last film, Margaret, because it’s films like Manchester by the Sea that helps prove that filmmakers like Lonergan help continue making character-driven movies like this one.
This will be brief, but I wanted to mention a piece by Brian Formo of Collider.com on how Amazon Studios (the company that distributed Manchester) is currently operating like a studio from the 1970s would. The films that come out of this studio are character-driven and thought-provoking films that were on the rave during the Robert Evans-era of Hollywood. We don’t get movies like Manchester by the Sea made with big studios anymore, so its refreshing that a studio like Amazon is putting out movies like this one.
This is really one of my very favorite films of 2016. It’s not an easy film to sit through (I saw the film by myself, if that says anything), but the experience is worth it. Casey Affleck gives a performance that will probably define his career for decades to come. Manchester will definitely be up for plenty of awards, so if the film is playing in your neck of the woods, I recommend going to check this one out. And yes, this will be appearing on my Best of 2016 list (that post is coming very soon…).