Let’s not play coy, this film is a masterpiece. A work that completely reminds you why there is power in cinema.
Kenneth Lonergan’s tour-de-force drama tells the story of Lee Chandler, who’s life is uprooted when his brother, Joe, dies leaving his nephew Patrick in need of care.
While that’s a basic cover of the plot the film itself is much more than that. This film is a rumination on guilt, depression and grief that treats everyone as people capable of much depth. This alone is a feat in a world where films seem to need to find a way of blowing issues into long overdrawn speeches. This film, however, is as much a piece of art as the best of works by the likes of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh.
First of all the film is beautifully shot, giving you a sense of place and time in a way so many films don’t manage to. The way in which the sea and the snow is shot makes you feel like you are there in the cold – it’s not just the environment, the cold infects all of the characters there too.
The direction is also never intrusive; it’s well shot, but never overly stylish. It’s painterly and well mannered, that helps you understand the pain and anguish. Not only this but Lonergan has crafted a script that perfectly balances juxtaposes the past and the present, in a way that hasn’t been done since The Godfather Part II. The screenplay balances naturalistic dialogue with some truly blackly comic moments which only add to the sense that this is a very human and real situation.
One the acting end of things it’s a solid stint of performances, Casey Affleck is great as the introverted lonely guy with a barely contained anger that is just waiting to be unleashed. Affleck, who has carved a career out of playing those types reaches the pinnacle of this archetype with Lee Chandler. His performance is filled with mannerisms and vocal ticks that appear to come from a life lived in full. The younger, happier Lee and the older, haunted Lee are two distinct and yet connected people who are perfect for Affleck to embody. Not since his sinister turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has Affleck turned in a performance this layered.
It helps that he’s surrounded by brilliant support from Kyle Chandler, who builds on the promise of Friday Night Lights and Super 8 as the dependable big brother, who’s death creates the schism in everyone’s lives. His flashbacks scenes provide some of the biggest laughs and the most painful moments, his stand out being his desire to buy his younger brother some furniture, it’s very small, very simple but so so effective.
Lucas Hedges is absolutely great as the somewhat petulant but also utterly sympathetic Patrick, who’s life is thrown into turmoil by his father’s death. His scenes with Affleck bristle, and he manages to forge a persona that isn’t just a teen being a dick. Though his character is stubborn, and has aspects that are unlikeable, it never feels like he’s losing sympathy and his break down scene is one of the highlights of the film.
It also helps that with limited screentime, the likes of Michelle Williams, C.J. Wilson and Gretchen Mol all manage to forge characters that show the spectrum of human emotion. Williams, who has some of the hardest scenes, manages to illicit sympathy by just allowing her voice to crack, while Kara Hayward and Anna Baryshnikov both give great performances as Patrick’s two girlfriends.
The film is filled with beautifully observed moments from an awkward fumble between teens (and the great line “please remove your hand from my cunt”), to some sequences that are truly harrowing. Lonergan has crafted a true masterpiece and the first truly perfect film of 2017, come awards season it wouldn’t be surprising if this sweeps the board; original, touching and truly majestic, Manchester by the Sea is one of the finest films ever made.