Manchester by the Sea

This Oscar-nominated drama is absolutely devastating.
Sarah Ward
Published on February 02, 2017


When trouble strikes, tragedy gets a catchphrase: "life goes on." You might hear it from well-meaning acquaintances, or even loved ones. As accurate as those words may be, however, the reality is far less simple. In the case of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) in Manchester by the Sea, pain and heartbreak become like a second skin, numbing him to the outside world. As he goes about his job as a Boston janitor he encounters complaints, advice and even awkward romantic advances, and yet he can barely bring himself to react. "You're rude, you're unfriendly, you don't say good morning," his boss tells him after a complaint is lodged. Lee remains unfazed.

Manchester by the Sea tackles heavy subject matter as Lee is forced to return to his hometown and take custody of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of the boy's father (Kyle Chandler). From this relatively simple dramatic premise, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) masterfully pieces together fragments of past trauma, present malaise and future uncertainty, delivering a complex portrait of a haunting but rarely acknowledged reality. Whether we've charted the same journey as Lee or endured ordeals of our own, most of us are broken in our own way. Surviving that pain, rather than fixing it, is perhaps all we can really ever hope to manage.

Lonergan stresses this idea in a number of different ways. Stellar performances from Hedges and Michelle Williams (as Lee's ex-wife) seethe with inner turmoil. The snowy Massachusetts setting, meanwhile, provides further obstacles. And then there's the filmmaker's approach to filling in Lee's backstory, via flashbacks that slip into the main storyline so seamlessly that it takes a moment to realise that the timeline has changed. Of course, that's how everyday pain manifests itself. It coats life with an extra layer, even when things otherwise appear fine. It intrudes seemingly at random, even when you're not expecting bad memories and heartache to rear their ugly head.

In an Oscar-nominated performance, Affleck broods, frowns and furrows his brow. Don't think he's just serving up his own version of Sad Affleck though. Here, despair runs much deeper than a bad interview about a superhero flick. Conveying the deep-seeded misery that can only come from years of suffering and regret, Affleck plays Lee with naturalistic agony of the festering variety, while also providing a glimpse at something more.

An exploration of grief and loss, Manchester by the Sea is undeniably bleak. But don't be surprised by the movie's sense of humour, either. Laughter is a necessary cathartic device even in the darkest of situations, and here it makes the drama feel that much more real. Combined with the movie's commitment to laying bare inescapable inner struggles, and Lonergan's latest proves both devastatingly relatable and sincerely affecting.


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