While working in Quincy, Massachusetts, Lee Chandler gets a phone call to learn that his brother, Joe, is in hospital. When he arrives there, Lee learns that Joe has died and he heads to Manchester-by-the-Sea to tell Patrick, Joe’s teenage son. Lee moves temporarily into Joe’s house and after meeting with Joe’s lawyer to discuss his will, Lee is shocked to learn that Joe entrusted the guardianship of Patrick to him and intended for him to relocate to the area.
Awards season is now upon us and Manchester by the Sea is a major contender in the race – this being rightly so. The film opens on a gorgeous idyllic seaside scene with a man (Joe), his brother (Lee) and his son (Patrick) playing on a boat. What follows breaks down the idealism of the setting, but the seaside town is never dystopian either. The coldness of the place is penetrative, but for Patrick, it is home. Lee, however, can’t stand to be there.
Affleck’s character is a janitor whose work encapsulates being a plumber, electrician, and general handyman. He seems like your average, mellow guy, apart from an inexplicable, deep-rooted rage that provokes him on occasion to lash out at people.
When he finds out his brother has died, classical music plays in the background as he takes the phone call, drives to Manchester, and calls into work to let them know the situation. The soundscape creates this surreal ambience that shouldn’t work but does, and is just one of many moments in the film that tribute to Kenneth Lonergan’s strengths as a director, for he makes interesting stylistic choices throughout that give the relatively simple storyline depth of feel. He delicately balances film aesthetics, for example, flashbacks and music, with realism.
Lonergan’s strength as a director is also reflected by the standard of acting in the film. There isn’t a single false note in anyone’s performance and while Lucas Hedge’s character Patrick is not always likeable (he pulls off the bratty teenager eerily well), he is 100% genuine. As for Casey Affleck, the guy is extraordinary. This is the performance of his career and his character mirrors an era of repressed masculinity that is harrowing to see so explicitly on the big screen. It’s really no wonder that he won the Golden Globe for his performance, and he’s could easily secure the Best Actor Oscar too.
Williams’ character we see less of. We learn more about Randi, and about Lee, through flashbacks of the pair’s relationship, and both actors ably convey the major distinctions between the then and now. There is one scene between them in the film’s third act (it is the one depicted, in fact, by the movie poster) that is truly one of the most heart-breaking scenes in recent cinema. Everything is reined in in those few minutes, so much is said and yet inexpressible, and it sparks off the final events which bring the film satisfactorily to what initially felt like an impossible conclusion.
The alternately surreal, emotional, and awkward nature of a relative passing away is poetically portrayed. Overall, there’s very little to fault in Manchester by the Sea. Pacing-wise, it falters somewhat in the second act. Additionally, sometimes the tragedy feels too much to bear, and it is very possible that as a result, some audiences may disconnect from it entirely. Still Manchester by the Sea is a visceral cinematic experience and a beautiful accomplishment.