Wow! I’d heard all about the Oscar hype surrounding this film but to be honest, while I thought I would be seeing a solid and well-made indie film, I went into it without great expectations of having an ‘enjoyable’ time: the trailer had “angst” written all over it. And – sure – it is emotional and harrowing in places. However, I was completely knocked out by the depth, the intelligence and the humour of this masterpiece.
‘Family troubles’ is a common trope for the movies, and I was strongly reminded at times in watching this movie of a multi-Oscar winning classic of my youth: Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” back in 1980. In that film the relationship between parents (Mary Tyler-Moore and Donald Sutherland) and their teenage son (Timothy Hutton) is rocked by the accidental death of another family member. Similarly, in “Manchester by the Sea” a drifting handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, “Triple 9“, “Interstellar“) gets the shocking news that his only brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, “The Wolf of Wall Street“) has suddenly passed away, leaving behind a mid-teens son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) with no-one to look after him.
With the other option being an unstable and ex-alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) – now divorced and living in a strictly pious household with new husband Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick) – Joe has legally plumped for naming Lee as the boy’s guardian. This is much to Lee’s surprise and annoyance. For Lee is a man-adrift: an antisocial loner with a very short fuse. Having any sort of responsibility is not in his game plan.
With the ground too frozen to bury his brother, Lee is forced to remain in Manchester-by-the-Sea for a few weeks: a town he can’t stand and a town that, for some reason, can’t stand him. Can Lee’s attitude be softened by his lively and over-sexed nephew? Or will he just continue his emotional and social decline towards a gutter and a brown-bag?
Where this film surprises – with a strong kick to the gut – is that while I have described the high-level story in the paragraphs above that the trailer depicts, there is a whole other dimension to the tale that is hidden and truly astonishing. No spoilers, but if you are not shocked and moved by it, then you need your humanity chip reset.
Casey Affleck is Oscar-nominated now for Best Actor and I would love to see him win for this. I had a real go at his brother, Ben, for a lack of facial variation in his performance in “Live By Night“. Here, while Casey has a similar dour and pretty rigid demeanour, his performance is chalk-and-cheese compared to Ben. He channels a shut-down rage in his eyes that is both haunting and disturbing in equal measure.
Young Lucas Hedges – overlooked by the BAFTAs (he is in the “Rising Star” category) but yesterday nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar – is equally strong, burying his teenage grief in guitars, sex and smart phones in a highly believable way.
Supporting roles are equally strong, with Michelle Williams – albeit only having limited screen time – delivering truly memorable scenes, notably the street encounter with Lee (as featured on the poster) which is electrifying. She is also Oscar nominated for the role.
What really makes these performances shine is the elegant directing by Kenneth Lonergan, better known for his screenplays on films like “Analyze This” and “Gangs of New York”. He gives the actors time… lots of time. A typical example is when young Patrick walks into Lee’s bedroom and stares at some photos on his bedside table before walking on. It must be a good 20 to 30 seconds used, but time really well spent. The film spectacularly uses flash-backs to great effect, with the only visual notification that you are in a different time-zone being the living and breathing appearance of Joe in the shot.
Lonergan also writes the screenplay, and I mentioned in my introduction the humour used. There are some outright belly laughs in this film, which feels incongruous with the morbid subject matter but which also feels guiltily appropriate (we’ve all surely had an experience where a tense funeral mood is lightened by an uncle loudly farting at the back of the church, or similar!).
Manchester-by-the-Sea is a picturesque place in Massachusetts, and the camera work by Jody Lee Lipes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”, “Trainwreck”) lovingly makes use of that. There is incredibly crisp focus, with the opening boat scene looks like it is hyper-HD.
This is a truly stunning film, and one that will live with me for many years to come. For that reason it receives my highest accolade together with my best wishes for success at the forthcoming Oscars. If you haven’t yet, go see it.
Fad Rating: FFFFF.