by Flo Dwek
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a ravishing new film written and directed by playwright and screenwriter, Ken Lonergan (ANALYZE THIS, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, GANGS OF NEW YORK). It is, above all, a tale of heartbreak and loss, but equally so, one about the search for redemption and forgiveness, and the struggle to cope. This perfect gem dazzles as a gorgeous reverie for the eyes, but at its core, Lonergan gifts us with a deeply moving elegy for the heart.
Set in the picture postcard fishing village of Manchester-by-the-Sea (near Gloucester, Massachusetts), this complex tale unfolds slowly, in powerful, often lyrical set pieces crafted meticulously in Lonergan’s able hands.
It is difficult not to overstate the phenomenal writing and direction he brings to this film and the bravura performances of his three top-notch leads — Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, Michelle Williams as his wife, Randi, and Lucas Hedges as Lee’s 15-year-old nephew, Patrick Chandler. Come Oscar time, look for them all to be making their acceptance speeches. (Yes, they are all that good.) And MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is sure to be a worthy contender for best film of the year.
Lee’s complicated and heart-rending story is seen through the parallel lenses of his narrow, troubled life in grimy, snow-covered Boston — and in flashbacks, of the livelier, happy times he shared with his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), his wife and young nephew in a sun-dappled Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Lee is an all-American, tragic Everyman in the guise of a poor handyman and janitor, a puzzling and enigmatic martyr. Close-ups of Affleck’s handsome, 30-something face, with his piercing blue eyes gripped by a deep, faraway sadness and pain — are a thing to behold.
His somber expression and strange behavior in the present contrasts sharply with those sunny flashbacks of the spirited and loving man he used to be in Manchester-by-the-Sea. It takes a while before Lonergan lets us into what’s going on in Lee’s life and mind. And Affleck is in no hurry either, playing out each scene with considerable grace and empathy for his character.
When his brother Joe dies, Lee is forced to contend with the harsh consequences of his death and the unexpected burden of Patrick’s need for a father figure. But sadder still, we are shocked to discover, Lee’s current grief and angst is actually a devastating new blow for him, coming just a few short years after a horrific personal tragedy. Lee’s inner turmoil and struggle to cope with his mournful past is very nearly his undoing, and Affleck inhabits his life-gone-bad persona with a vengeance.
In one long scene, after dealing with a client’s clogged toilet (an apt metaphor of his life at that point), Lee lathers up and washes his hands over and over in a classic on screen depiction of spiritual cleansing. Seeking punishment and redemption at every turn, he starts messy fist fights in local bars that leave him beaten and bloody. In another particularly jarring scene, he enters Joe’s bedroom, peers silently at all the familiar objects arrayed on the wall and dresser — and then rams his fist into a bedroom window that explodes into angry shards.
Lee’s wife, Randi, the radiant Michelle Williams, takes over the screen with her finely honed portrayal of a blond, working class, foul mouthed wife and mom who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Williams delivers a standout performance in a moving pivotal scene, where she unexpectedly meets Lee after many years of separation, wheeling her newborn down the street, and makes a valiant attempt to reconcile. When a fearful and reluctant Lee rebuffs her, Randi’s face and body dissolve into a heartbreaking sadness so deep, it literally transforms her on screen presence.
Much of the film centers on Lee’s intimate relationship with his nephew Patrick. Lucas Hedges is a wonder in the role — all cocky charm and wit, a courteous but lust-driven teen, hell bent on ice hockey and getting as much sex as he can while dealing with his father’s death and his Uncle Lee’s unorthodox parenting. His interactions with Lee are often a delight, providing surprising levity and comic relief in a film with so many tragic contours. (Lonergan has said that the comic bits he wrote into the script were intended to be interwined with the tragic ones, as they are in life — part of the same side of “one coin” as opposed to the proverbial flip side.)
Two other factors contribute to the film’s extraordinary beauty: The highly effective use of atmosphere and moody music. In one painterly vignette after another, Lonergan and his cinematographer (Jody Lee Lipes) give the elements a starring role — pummeling some scenes with wind, snow and ice; caressing others with ocean breezes and salt air, or ravaging them in wicked flames.
Eye candy aside, it’s a pleasure to listen to the diverse strains of the film’s rich, sensitive musical score, as Lonergan imbues scene after scene with pieces he loves — from soaring chorale works with their weighty spirituality to giddy lyrics that tiptoe across sunny boat decks and cozy, throw-strewn couches.
Go gently into this film, eyes wide open, look deeply, come what may, and hold on tight as you toss in the gales of an unforgettable, bittersweet life.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is scheduled to open at theaters nationwide on Friday, November 25.