In the opening scenes of Manchester By The Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s keen to ensure there are no doubts in the minds of the audience about the film’s main protagonist. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a deeply unpleasant individual leading a solitary lifestyle due to his inability to make human connections with anybody he encounters. He routinely offends tenants in his day job as a handyman, and spends his spare time drinking alone at a local bar before getting into unprovoked fights with strangers.
After receiving news that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a cardiac arrest, Lee’s forced to return to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts. Arriving too late to speak to his sibling before he dies, Lee discovers that he’s been appointed as the guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Feeling unequipped to deal with the situation, Lee tries to find an alternative solution as both of them attempt to come to terms with their loss.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the tragic circumstances that caused Lee to originally leave his hometown and why he’s reluctant to stay longer than is necessary. Unfortunately, due to the wintry weather, the ground’s too hard for Joe’s body to be buried so Lee and Patrick are forced to stay longer in Manchester until the snow thaws. And, in the intervening months, the pair develop a paternal bond as they try to get their lives back on track.
Manchester By The Sea is a beautiful, honest, unsentimental depiction of the grieving process, demonstrating the impact that the loss of a loved one has on those family members left behind. Lonergan’s film is about the interplay between grief, guilt, masculinity, and whether some deaths are so traumatic that we can never fully recover from them.
Lonergan’s also keen to make the point that the ghosts of our past don’t necessarily come in the form of the deceased. Patrick unsuccessfully attempts to reconnect with his estranged mother (Gretchen Mol), who has found God and is planning to remarry. Meanwhile, Lee bumps into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who has moved on and started a new family of her own. Williams earned huge plaudits for the role, even though she’s on screen for a mere 11 minutes of a two-hour movie, but her speech pleading for Lee not to “just die” is one of the most powerful and memorable moments in the film.
However, Manchester By The Sea is most likely to be remembered as the film that propelled Casey Affleck into Hollywood’s A-List. His understated portrayal of Lee Chandler won a glut of awards, including the coveted Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards. In a case of life imitating art, Affleck was treated like a pariah at the ceremony, in a similar manner to how the residents of Manchester regard his character Lee, following reports that the star had settled claims of “uninvited sexual advances” out of court. Despite the controversy surrounding his Oscars victory, it would be difficult to argue that Affleck’s performance was anything less than sensational.
The film picked up six Academy Awards nominations in total, including one for Best Picture, but in the build up to the ceremony Manchester By The Sea seemed to earn an undeserved reputation as a depressing and dull film. This was especially odd given the groundswell of support for eventual Best Picture winner Moonlight, which shared a lot of similar themes and was arguably a tougher film to get through. In reality, Lonergan has delivered a masterclass in precision filmmaking; showcasing crisp dialogue and a clinical plot that never distracts from the point it’s trying to make. The film’s pivotal scene is delivered with aplomb in near-silence and makes the audience completely re-evaluate their preconceptions of Lee Chandler and his character flaws. We’re left to ask ourselves, if we had experienced the same things as Lee, would we share his world-weary outlook?
Manchester By The Sea is also a landmark film for the industry. Co-distributed by Amazon Studios, it’s the first time a streaming platform has received a Best Picture nomination. With The White Helmets picking up a statuette for Netflix in the Best Short Documentary category, these platforms are now major players in Hollywood and offer filmmakers an alternative model to the traditional studios. Manchester By The Sea’s cinematic release was followed by a period of exclusivity on Amazon Prime before this week’s DVD release, meaning we may also be seeing a shift back towards the old notion of a ‘rental window’.
Given the manner in which they’ve already pushed up standards in the world of television, Amazon and Netflix’s early successes in the world of film can only be a good thing for audiences.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Kenneth Lonergan.
starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler & Lucas Hedges.