Movie Review: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – slow burning, heartbreaking character-driven drama with hugely affecting performances all round.

Image result for manchester by the sea poster

I had planned on watching Manchester By The Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergen, last night anyway, but feeling somewhat shamed by a buddy’s implication that I watch too many genre movies, I could not waver on that plan!  As soon as I heard Casey Affleck had produced a performance worthy of acclaim, culminating in an Oscars nomination for Best Actor, I was intrigued.  Wee Affleck?  In a role that Matt Damon was originally set to play?  But then I suddenly remembered that this wasn’t the first time he’d been nominated, and sure enough, a trip to Wikipedia shows that he was nominated as a Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

I admit, I haven’t seen a lot of his work.  He’s not an actor I immediately identify as producing memorable performances, and the last time I saw him was the Christian Bale blue collar you-killed-my-brother drama Out of the Furnace, where he plays a tortured Iraq War vet involved in illegal bare knuckle fights, reminiscent of Christopher Walken’s character in The Deer Hunter following the end of the Vietnam War.  Affleck was good in that, but no more than that.  When I starting reading the acclaim for Manchester By The Sea, I was surprised enough to want to check it out.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot here without giving away the major reveal, but the movie goes something like this: Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a surly and uncommunicative Boston building maintenance worker who finds out after his brother dies suddenly that he has been entrusted with the guardianship of his nephew Patrick, but will be required to return to his hometown of Manchester-By-The-Sea in order to do so.  Haunted by past events, Lee is unwilling to do it, but over the course of his stay, he and Patrick renew their kinship.

I won’t deny it, the first act of the movie showing Lee’s life in Boston is worthwhile, but it’s all character, all setup for the meat and potatoes of Act 2.  That is not to say it’s bad by any stretch, but there’s very little sense of where the movie might be heading.  While my interest was held, my wife wondered aloud that she hoped the movie was going to pick up.  Speaking for myself, I was more convinced by the writing in Act 1 than by Affleck’s performance, but I could tell towards the middle of this section that the movie was about a tragic downfall, so my initial lack of interest in Affleck was replaced by intrigue over what led to Lee working for peanuts in a depressing cell-like basement apartment, and having no interest in the people around him.  There’s a fine scene in Act 1 where an attractive bar patron attempts to make conversation with him, but he only has interest in glaring across the bar at two guys having a private conversation.  When Lee heads to the hospital where his brother Joe is lying in the morgue following a fatal heart attack, the movie begins to unfold in two separate stories – the present day story, and a linear flashback story interspersed throughout the movie.

From this, and the character of Lee, it was pretty clear that the movie was following the same path as such movies as Ordinary People, and the Leonardo DiCaprio one-two of Shutter Island and Inception.  In these movies, the audience is led to the heart of a character with a flashback story doled out throughout the main story like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading to the seismic event in the character’s past that changed their lives forever.  These movies have one other thing in common in the regard to their events, but I won’t go into that.  I find these movies very satisfying to watch for a couple of reasons – my interests in writing are mostly character-driven, not plot-driven, and I enjoy the experience of seeing an actor play, essentially, two characters: the duality of the pre-event and post-event character is interesting, and the deepening mystery traced by the flashbacks generally culminate in the best scene in the movie, the ultimate reveal.  I suspect that this kind of role is attractive to most actors who love acting, and don’t just show up for the money.

In Manchester By The Sea, Lee’s reveal is the lynchpin of the movie, but equally as important as the bond that hesitantly begins to form between Lee and Patrick, his 16 year old nephew.  Patrick is played here by Lucas Hedges, and it’s another great performance.  To me, authenticity is the key to a fine performance.  It’s easy to tell the difference between one who can truly act, versus one who merely reads the lines, and that difference is emotion.  Now that doesn’t mean acting “angry” or “sad” or “happy”.  These are just line-delivery cues.  Inhabiting a role means stepping into the life of another being, experiencing the role from the inner emotional life of that person, from the big to the small.  It’s the foundation of The Method that all good actors will use.  I use it in my own writing, and it’s the only way I can write.  Patrick is in an awful teenage band, he plays high school hockey, he is dating two girls, and in the aftermath of his father’s death, wants to maintain his father’s business, which is solely based on operating a rickety fishing boat that takes people out into the choppy north Atlantic seas off the coast of Massachusetts.  He’s ambitious, and for all his backtalk and surliness, he’s likable and mature for his years.  One scene towards the end when Patrick and Lee are sitting alone at a dining table, despite their contentious relationship throughout the movie, culminates in the line, “Why can’t you stay?” may actually be the movie’s best line, and certainly it’s one of the best moments in the movie.

Another memorable scene features Michelle Williams as Lee’s former wife.  They meet unexpectedly in the street, and when Williams delivers her lines, it’s with the force of a Band Aid ripped from a raw wound.  The force of the emotion she delivers in that scene is one borne of high tragedy.  It’s by far and away THE big scene of the movie, and while I don’t care for awards, I’ll be amazed if Williams doesn’t claim the Best Supporting Actress award for this scene alone.

Equally praiseworthy is Lonergan’s direction.  The movie is shot with an intentional lack of visual flair, never allowing the cold beauty of a coastal New England town in winter to intrude on the performances.  In the hands of another director, the camera might linger too much on the close up during an emotional scene for added “weight”, it might allow the actors to emote a little too much, but as long as the movie is, it still feels as tight and small as any low budget indie.

Manchester By The Sea is required viewing, that’s it in a nutshell.  You may be a plot-driven moviewatcher, and that’s great, but plot-driven drama doesn’t feed the mind or stir the heart, and we all need that every now and then.  If you watch and feel the movie is taking too much time to warm up, persevere and you will be greatly rewarded.


© Andrew Hope 2017

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