Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” (2016) is a work of genius. Set and filmed in the northeastern town of Manchester, MA, Lonergan captures a powerful, depressing tale, yet finds the hint of humor that comes from daily life. The writer and director of the film, rare for today’s filmmaking, Lonergan has a way of storytelling that is distinct and meaningful to people, radiating from beginning to end.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor who lives in Quincy. He keeps to himself, but there is something off about him, evident from his undecorated apartment, to when he starts a brawl in a bar out of nowhere. His mannerisms suggest that there is something festering inside of him.
He eventually gets a call, only to discover that his older brother died. It was already acknowledged at this point in the movie that his older brother, Joe, had a terminal heart condition, so his passing was not completely unexpected. Joe’s death leaves Lee taking care of Joe’s 16-year old son, Patrick, a normal kid, who is surprisingly mature and independent. Lee then spends more time in Manchester, visiting funeral homes and lawyers and deciding what to do about his brother’s commercial boat. Most of the action in the film comes from routine tasks and small happenings, which Lonergan uses to highlight the characters’ suffering. As Lee spends more time in Manchester, his past is revealed, and it is shown to be utterly painful.
Affleck exhibits an incredible amount of acting power with just the few facial expressions he relies on. These minimal facial expressions, however, reveal an inner sadness that few have been able to achieve on-screen. It could initially be interpreted as a weaker display of acting, but this is not the case. Lee is holding onto inner demons and refuses to let them go. He does crack a joke every once in awhile and has quite a good sense of humor, but clearly, it is dampened by his condition. His humor and the interactions he has blend nicely into the film, and really are essential for the topics that “Manchester by the Sea” undertakes.
While the supporting roles are not as strong as Affleck’s performance, they do work well in the film. Patrick shares a similar sense of humor with Lee, and they both connect more since they spend a good amount of time together. Their relationship demonstrates Lonergan’s strength in creating realistic, personable characters. C. J. Wilson, who plays Joe’s best pal and business partner, also puts on a good performance. However, Lee’s ex-wife Randi, played by Michelle Williams, is not particularly great, as her acting comes off as shallow.
The rough beauty of New England in “Manchester by the Sea” is precise. The seasons change from a brisk fall to an interminable, snowy winter. The inside of the houses additionally have a hollow feel, with the creakiness of walking up old, wooden stairs, the ones that can easily be seen while driving along the coastal town.
The fact that the movie is set in Manchester shows that movies are branching out to unique locations. Manchester is known for its fishing and is an unorthodox place to shoot, since it is merely an ordinary town. Yet this makes it feel all the more realistic. Movies like this one are capturing people’s attention, or at least the attention of intellectuals who recognize them for chances at film festivals. Movies are being shot in places such as Manchester, and even Cincinnati, offering little-seen buildings with unique German architecture a chance to be seen on the big screen. Films that pertain to the working class seem to have the ability to resonate with many.
The working class is personified in Lee, but in the most depressing way. He is working a minimum-wage job and carries on with his life, with or without meaning. The guilt of his past weighs on him and he only wants to continue to tuck it away. Revisiting his hometown slowly opens him up, but only to realize that perhaps that he will never be the same again.
Though this film follows an exceptionally gloomy storyline, Lonergan’s cast and cinematic mastery make “Manchester by the Sea” a force to be reckoned with at the box office.