Review (Theatrical): MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Ever notice someone walking by who has haunted eyes? To whom a musky whiff of past or present misfortune seems to linger as they go about their daily lives?
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, Interstellar, The Killer Inside Me), the taciturn protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, is just such a person. He works with quiet resignation at his job as a Boston apartment building handyman: Shoveling snow, fixing minor plumbing and electrical problems, and interacting with the residents only in the most superficial of ways. A female tenant makes it clear she’s attracted, but all he can do is shrug. Another tenant, dissatisfied with Lee’s assessment of her bathtub leak, berates him. He pushes back, but without vigor or undue vitriol.
His life seems an endless cycle of such encounters, ending each day alone in his one-room, basement apartment. The feet of more fully engaged humans pass by his narrow street-level window, with Lee living an ordinary and colorless life beneath the reality of the city above him.
While drinking at a bar one night, another attractive woman shows interest in him, but again he seems unmoved. Once he’s had a few too many, however, he finally shows emotion by lashing out with violence at a pair of strangers whom he perceives to be staring at him. Otherwise, Lee clearly fails to connect with other human beings. But why?
When a call comes about a family tragedy, the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, Bloodline, The Wolf of Wall Street), Lee finds his non-life interrupted. While he reacts to the news with the same weary resignation, he also displays a sense of duty by not hesitating to jump in his aging Jeep to head toward what we’ll find out is the hometown that gives the movie its title. We’ll find out it’s a place that for him is haunted by much more than this latest death in the family.
With a newly orphaned teenaged nephew (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) on his hands, Lee finds himself forced to reconnect with the world and what’s left of his family, but if he’s forced to stay in Manchester, it’s a process that will be fraught with a daily reminder of past trauma. Again, a sense of familial duty provides a strong impetus, but with the horror of what happened a few years before lurking around every corner, Lee finds it difficult to fully commit to his nephew’s needs.
Since the premiere of Manchester by the Sea at last January’s Sundance Festival, playwright, screenwriter and director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) has been touted as having made one of the year’s most accomplished pieces of cinema, and not without good reason: The movie, one of the best-written dramas in a long time, is mostly unadorned by stylistic conceits—but for an occasional flashback and a few flourishes of sound design, it unfolds like the best of the old Italian Neo-Realist dramas. It’s a straightforward look at a human being for whom we’ll find out that whatever tragedies befall him, the worst of the worst has already occurred, and that sometimes what we’ve been through is so terrible the idea of recovery seems all but impossible.
Affleck, whose low-key acting style more than suits such a damaged character, has never been more real, and in only a few scenes Michelle Williams manages to imbue Lee’s ex-wife with an affecting, melancholy depth of feeling. Their climactic scene together, as one more layer of hurt more present than past is revealed, should earn them both numerous year-end accolades, perhaps even Oscars. Hedges, still early in his acting career, also makes a strong impression as a teenage boy struggling both with impending adulthood, as well as the absence of not one but now both of his parents.
This wrenching drama includes flashes of welcome humor, but be sure to bring a hanky or three. Highest recommendation.
James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.