HOLLYWOOD—This isn’t new ground for a movie. Grief, depression, and the return of a prodigal son are common themes in our cinematic stories. Films like “Five Nights in Maine” explored some of these topics earlier this year. “Manchester by the Sea” might be covering this old ground, but it does it well.
The story centers on handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). His brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) sudden death forces him to return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts. There he is told that he will take guardianship of his brother’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Director/writer Kenneth Lonergan has outdone himself. The script’s dialogue is tremendous, and for such a heavy drama it has some hilariously well timed jokes. They’re darkly humorous, but you get the feeling they’re exactly the kind of thing that would be said in the given situations. Some people might be put off by the style of flashbacks used. I for one liked it. The fact that it takes us a second to figure out we’re looking at the past gives us insight into Lee. He’s stuck there. His bad memories are constantly drowning him in sorrow and they happen at random. We don’t control what pops into our own heads and neither does he. It’s a good insight into trauma, grieving, memory, and the nature of mental health issues.
One thing that stuck out to me was how well the film deals with depression and trauma. Casey Affleck is astounding as Lee. The whole cast does a great job, but he took center stage. He plays to perfection a man on the verge. His vacant, haunted eyes say as much as the dialogue, and his penchant for withdrawing, drinking, and picking fights all come off spot on for a man in the depths of despair.
One flaw that I can’t get over is the film’s use of a song extremely similar to “Adagio for Strings” from the movie “Platoon” for the most emotionally devastating scene. This is like a given film using the song “Gonna Fly Now” from “Rocky” for its own purposes. It just doesn’t work. We associate these songs closely with certain films, and when a different film uses them you think more of that film than the one you’re watching. It draws the audience out, and frankly felt kind of lazy. It’s not a huge complaint, but in a movie with such great writing, directing, and acting this oversight was disconcerting.
That scene minus the music is disturbing and highly emotional. It would have been easy to let it slip into melodrama, but it feels raw and authentic. It arrived at the perfect time. Just before the point I think we’d slip into confusion is when we get the necessary backstory. A tribute to the scripts excellent pacing no doubt.
A subtle but powerful film, it is a slice of life with a quiet sadness to it. The warmth of a small town is felt, as is its cruelty when someone becomes the outcast. The constant awkward moments and emotional battles of its lead feel to real, as does the film’s lack of catharsis. There was hope, but it was not certain. We are not given the false promise of a happy ending, but even in Lee’s case we see affirming things. He goes on, and we are glad he does.
Look for this one to land Lonergan an Oscar nod for director and original screenplay as well as acting nominations for Affleck and Michelle Williams for her role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. A great drama anchored by a great script and cast, “Manchester by the Sea” is one of the gems of 2016.