By Chaz Lipp
There is a lot to like about Manchester By the Sea, first and foremost being the outstanding performances. Casey Affleck stars as handyman Lee Chandler. He underplays the heavy emotions in Manchester to expert effect. We see that Lee is merely going through the motions in his life, unclogging toilets all day before knocking back brews at the bar. But he clearly isn’t unwinding—he’s just continuing to exist. There’s something haunting in his eyes and his disaffected speech patterns. Later in the movie, which unfolds in non-linear fashion, we find out exactly what.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, 2011) maintains a tight focus on Lee throughout Manchester, as if even he (despite having created the character) hasn’t quite figured out what to truly make of him. Before we’re shown the events which left Lee so irreparably damaged, we learn that his older brother Joe has died in Manchester. Joe (Kyle Chandler) was diagnosed with premature congestive heart failure several years back. He’s been raising his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) alone, ever since his mentally unstable wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) fled the family. Lee, who once lived in Manchester but has long resided about 90 minutes away, is stunned to learn that his brother designated him as guardian of now-teenage, high school student Patrick. He was close to nephew while living in Manchester, but those days have long passed and for years now he’s only been an intermittent presence in Patrick’s life.
Lonergan captures the dry, matter-of-fact process by which next of kin must move forward with funeral arrangements and notifying family and friends following the passing of a loved one. In Lee and Patrick’s case, Joe’s death was a long time coming—completely expected, though of course not welcomed. Everyone in Manchester seems to know of Lee, speaking about him in hushed tones almost as if he’s some sort of legend. He refers to his ex-wife Randi simply as his “wife,” as if he never quite accepted their divorce. Randi (Michelle Williams) remained close to Joe and Patrick and is as broken up over the death as much as anyone. But mostly Manchester concerns the alternating warm/prickly relationship between Lee and Patrick.
As mentioned, there are indeed women in Manchester. Women of great consequence in terms of the story. But for inexplicable reasons, Lonergan isn’t especially interested in them. Or maybe he is. Perhaps their stories wound up heavily truncated as the film was cut to a manageable, commercial length (137 minutes). Keep in mind, his previous film—the wrenching Margaret—was cut from 186 minutes to a still-long 150 minutes, coherency be damned. Whatever the case, Manchester simply doesn’t let us into Elise or Randi’s lives. The focus is Lee and, however effectively Affleck portrays him, Lee isn’t especially fascinating. Patrick is a more rounded character, a brashly cocky hockey player and rock band bassist who juggles girlfriends while keeping additional female admirers at bay. He knows the source of his uncle’s inner pain, but in typical teenage fashion doesn’t always respect it. His life in Manchester seems ideal (to him, anyway) and he’s not keen on Lee disrupting it with a move.
Manchester By the Sea boasts excellent acting, realistically dry writing, and emotional highpoints that elicit tears without feeling manipulative. But it’s too bad Lonergan either didn’t feel the need to make the film more of an ensemble piece or was possibly forced to make cuts to keep the film commercially viable. These characters are drawn with obvious sympathy. However poor some of their choices and actions may be, Lonergan isn’t interested in drawing easy good/bad, right/wrong, judgmental lines. Still, for all the clear care he has invested in telling their stories, the dogged focus on Lee ultimately throws the whole film somewhat off balance.
Manchester By the Sea images: Roadside Attractions, Amazon Studios