Manchester by the Sea is everything you have heard it to be and more. The back-flips done by critics are totally warranted, and while this won’t be a film that everyone will appreciate, for this viewer, it represents the finest that storytelling can offer, and a complete confirmation that its writer/director, Kenneth Lonergan, is the most unsung voice of his generation. There have only been three films that he’s written and directed over 16 years; he needs to work more but I understand that geniuses require whatever amount of time they need in order to create. In its broad strokes, the film is all-encompassing and entirely brilliant, and when broken down into its small parts, Manchester by the Sea hits those sublime notes when a piece of fiction feels inherently real and candid at every turn. Lonergan’s writing is so effortless and so believable that there’s never a moment where you feel like you’re being given anything less than a snapshot of people who we either know or have heard about, and while the narrative goes to some extraordinarily upsetting places, there’s a tenderness and compassion to the story and a genuine sense of love for the characters, however flawed they may be, so that the viewer is able to get through all of the emotional heavy lifting.
Casey Affleck channels the best of Marlon Brando, giving a complex and incredibly lived-in performance as a man shattered by the past, and barely able to look to the future. With his gravelly mumbling and off-in-the-distance stare, Affleck is able to convey insecurity and pent-up rage better than most other actors, and during the film’s most devastating sequence, he gives new meaning to the phrase slow-burn acting, delivering a passage of haunting dialogue that becomes unforgettable by its conclusion. When circumstances beyond his control force him to re-evaluate his life and take some familial responsibility for the first time in a long time, the cracks in his withdrawn façade start to show, and it’s because Affleck is so smart with his eyes and the way he moves his head and presents himself physically that you’re able to become consumed by both his grief, love, and hesitation. It’s Affleck’s show all the way, but he’s given wonderful support by a mega-talented ensemble, including a show-stopping Michelle Williams, who goes all-in and all-out during one of the film’s emotional set-pieces; tremendous up-and-comer Lucas Hedges, who evokes shades of Matt Damon, so poignant and able to convey impending maturity with a dash of vulnerability; one-time “It Girl” Gretchen Mol doing strong work in a very tricky and layered performance; authoritative and awesome Kyle Chandler who can literally do no wrong as a performer; and sly Matthew Broderick in a quiet bit of scene stealing during the film’s most realistically awkward sequence.
Lonergan’s sense of comedy is smart and always grounded in honesty, as no joke ever feels forced or like he’s trying to sell you on anything; as with life, humor can be found in the most unexpected of places, a notion that Lonergan clearly subscribes to. He enjoys straddling various tones, always allowing for wit and melancholy to co-exist, often in the same scene, and I’m continually interested in the fact that he’s seemingly obsessed with giving every single character who appears in his stories, no matter how important or tangential, something to say on camera; this is a dense piece of work in the same way that his previous film, 2008’s miraculous Margaret, was a tapestry of people, places, and the relationships that bind and separate. His visual style is appropriately plain and chilly and never self-conscious, the classical music selections befit Lonergan’s sense of class, and the film’s ending is so perfectly timed and considered as to be the final masterstroke from this most erudite and confident of filmmakers.
There’s so much that Manchester by the Sea gets correct, from the down-in-the-basement hooking-up on the part of the teenagers, to the overall New England atmosphere conjured up by the creative department, all filtered through Lonergan’s unique sense of style, which incorporates a nearly Altman-esque use of background chatter and ambient noise as to suggest realism and sonic depth; while not as intensely obsessed upon as it was in Margaret, the sound work in Manchester by the Sea is subtly powerful. If we’re lucky, the world gets a movie like this every once in a while, a piece of work that has the ability to move anyone, with universal themes that speak to our core values of humanity. It’s been a rich a provocative year with films like Arrival, Moonlight, Sully, and Manchester by the Sea all presenting specific yet inclusive glimpses of every-day people trying to move through life with communication as their guiding and motivating torch. Manchester by the Sea is an overwhelming picture, and while it may not be everyone’s idea of what constitutes “entertainment,” for those of us who want the cinematic experience to make us FEEL something, look no further than this spellbinding achievement.