Film Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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Ben Affleck is the A-lister we all know, and some love. But anyone who cares about modern film will be aware of the fact that younger brother Casey has been outshining him at almost every turn. Not blessed with the cheekbones of a Greek God, Casey has needed to compensate in other areas, and work much harder to succeed. For which all of us mere mortals can be thankful.

Ben has coasted through most often dreary material, reflexively unwilling to drop his cool exterior and explore any inner depth, whilst Casey has kept on pushing into oddball, revealing territory: a youth turned on by Nicole Kidman and then murder in To Die For, a horrendous sadist in The Killer Inside Me, a stalker starstruck by yet another God-like figure, Brad Pitt, in The Assassination of Jesse James.

Now add to that fascinating list Manchester by the Sea, his finest two hours onscreen.

Casey plays Lee Chandler, a down-and-out janitor living solitarily in Boston. Right from the off we are alerted to something askew in his personality: drinking alone at a bar, a woman uses the classic icebreaker of ‘accidentally’ spilling a drink over him. She is quite pretty and has taken the risk to initiate conversation. His response?

Nothing.

That word is key to Lee’s character – he shies away from anything that might come to define him in the eyes of others. He tries to avoid social encounters, although we don’t get the impression that the reason for this is shyness. He prefers to appear an empty vessel, even if it means he won’t get laid, for reasons that are hard to decipher. We soon find out that he’s the sort of guy who goes to bars not to pick up women but to pick fights – because you don’t need to converse with another man’s fists.

Little can we imagine the true terror that has sparked Lee’s cloistered existence, a tragedy which forms the devastating heart of this rich, emotive film.

Casey Affleck is totally convincing as a man ground to a halt by grief, and he deserves all of the awards heading his way (already begun with a Best Actor gong at the Golden Globes). I am greatly encouraged by the Oscars buzz, because that award so often goes to actors who can’t help but chew on scenery. Here the scenery is the very ocean itself, and yet Affleck still tries to hide behind it.

The sea is a symbol of hope, regeneration and freedom in many films – think of the finales of The Truman Show and last year’s Sing Street, for instance, where crossing it promises a new life and real adventure. But here it is stifling: Lee is forced to move to the coastal town of Manchester after he unexpectedly becomes custodial guardian to sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick. He has lived there before, and it is where his terrible tragedy occurred. It is a site of unspeakable pain, so the surrounding sea serves as a claustrophobic reminder that he is trapped – not at all liberating, then. It is a reminder that there is no escape from the past.

This is the great theme of director Kenneth Lonergan’s filmography. Guilt and regret emanating from the past are the founding blocks of You Can Count on Me and Margaret, films which also hem their characters into unwanted lives.

Yet before you dismiss any of them as too glum-sounding, note that Lonergan is so finely attuned to human flaws that he has figured out a way in which to mine them for equal parts humour and tragedy. Just like You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea sees the troubled leading man humanised by a surprising uncle-nephew relationship in which any of his shortcomings are matched by an undeniable warmth. This blessedly allows you to laugh at many of these shortcomings, especially when said nephew (brilliantly played here by twenty-year-old Lucas Hedges – watch out for him) has a sardonic comeback for every one.

The film itself has very few shortcomings. Too-brief roles for Michelle Williams (outstanding as ever as Lee’s ex-wife), Kyle Chandler (Lee’s brother), and Matthew Broderick (Patrick’s future father-in-law) stand out. But that’s because they are so engagingly sketched out, in only a few minutes of screentime, that we want more from them. Never in this 140 minute film do we want to see less.

My very great admiration for Manchester by the Sea continues beyond the completion of its running time: I can’t shake its deep, humane sadness. I don’t think that it is safe or comforting enough to have a shot at Best Picture glory with the Academy. But who cares? Its open ending is a glaring reminder that the worst kinds of grief are an ever-open wound, stretching before us like the wide and unstoppable sea.

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