Originally published on December 5, 2016. Manchester by the Sea is now available on Amazon Prime’s instant streaming service.
Overview: A man wracked with a personal grief of his own is forced to care for his teenage nephew following the death of his brother. Roadside Attractions; 2016; Rated R; 137 minutes.
Working Class Blues: At the heart of director Kenneth Lonergan’s stunning followup to the critically heralded – and notoriously delayed – release of his 2011 feature length effort Margaret is another heartfelt story of tragedy and grief. In the vein of that film’s unexpected heroine, Lonergan casts Casey Affleck as a man called upon to rise beyond his own despair to give alms to another fellow sufferer. For many viewers, Lee Chandler may well remain one of the most vibrantly depicted misanthropes of 2016. But his hard edges aren’t intentional. Despite being called an asshole, Lee Chandler is the most tender hearted Boston bruiser since Matt Damon and Ben Affleck first came together in the creation of Good Will Hunting in 1997.
Except Lonergan isn’t some rising actor fumbling to make it big in Hollywood. And Manchester by the Sea isn’t stricken by an underlying immaturity dressed up as a prestige picture. Indeed, Lonergan’s latest drama is a prestige picture, in name, intent, and tone, for better and for worse. There may be an overly familiar feel and undisguised preciousness to its working class blues ethos, but the performances and overall execution makes the movie into more than the sum of its parts.
Tragedy Ad Absurdum: The extent to which the Chandler family is exposed to one irreconcilable tragedy after another in Manchester by the Sea can begin to take on the shape of narrative contrivance. Lonergan’s script often revels in melancholy to such an extent that it would be easy to dismiss the movie as another laborious exercise in white male anguish and angst. Yet Casey Affleck’s central performance – which is buoyed by supporting turns from Michelle Williams as his ex-wife and Kyle Chandler as his late brother – isn’t stereotypically self-involved so as to merit the viewer’s contempt. The extent to which Affleck’s Lee Chandler goes through personal hell – all of which is backed by an immensely moving orchestral score comprising selections form Handel’s Messiah and original compositions written by Lesley Barber – is only absurd when regarded from the self-conscious advantage afforded by post-modern analysis.
Which is not to say that Manchester by the Sea is especially heady or inaccessible. Far from it, Lonergan’s latest masterpiece has more in common with the very greatest works of 19th century English literature and mid-20th century American fiction. Manchester by the Sea proceeds with the measured pacing of Charles Dickens and the sharp-sighted regionalism of Flannery O’Connor. Several moments that at first glance appear familiar and cliched are examined with the thoroughness of compassion that is demanded of the very best works of art in order to make those moments feel new again. Lonergan may have already delivered the world his magnum opus with the long-awaited release of Margaret, but in Manchester by the Sea he has surpassed the talents of many other American storytellers to an extent that is a marvel to behold.
Overall: Despite plodding a wide array of well known narrative beats and re-introducing a few well known characters, Manchester by the Sea sees director Kenneth Lonergan at the height of his powers and tells a viscerally human tale of love and loss as it effects one working class family in Manchester, Massachusetts.
Featured Image: Roadside Attractions