It’s taken a week for me to recover from the emotional impact of this film. The unflinching tale of a family’s tribulation and one man’s inescapable heartbreak is easily the finest film I’ve seen in 2016, showcasing not only director/writer Kenneth Lonergan‘s deft weaving of pain and memory but a powerful central performance by Casey Affleck. Affleck is Lee Chandler whose older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suddenly died leaving Lee the sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
For reasons we only gradually come to understand, Lee has been working as a janitor and handy man in Boston, and leaves to return to his New England hometown Manchester by the Sea to settle his brother’s estate and get his restless nephew in gear. The nephew and uncle, forced together by death, begin an awkward attempt at achieving some sort of bond, and their struggle to accept each other forms the mesmerizing heart of the film.
Lonergan’s directorial magic lies in opening the story simply, letting us very gradually fall under the spell that Affleck’s raw affect and simple gestures create. His face reveals—or conceals—a catastrophic past that defines the rest of his life. Only gradually, stitching back and forth, moving through time in the non-linear way of real life, does the film show us the source of Lee’s pain. We begin to understand why the nephew and uncle are so haunted by tragedy, and why they keep moving closer to some kind of relationship that might, just might overcome all the pain.
The film, whose plot sounds searingly downbeat, is a work of genuine incandescence. Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. It sails easily on the simple clarity of the coastal setting, the bare and poignant winter landscape, the bits of easy humor as we watch young Patrick’s attempt to navigate his high school popularity despite his father’s death. We learn that Patrick has an estranged mother, that Lee has an estranged ex-wife, played with uneven passion by Michelle Williams. The situation grows clearer with each scene.
But it is Casey Affleck’s film. Every moment, every nuance of devastation, every implication of a personal world lost is etched on his raw face, a face equally capable of existential confusion and gentle hope. His is an effortless performance of desperation and occasionally uncontrolled rage, and the director seems to know better than to interfere. The film refuses to smooth the edges of life that happens in the way that all life does. Chance intervenes and everything changes. Nothing is ever the same. Yet life continues. An uncontrived loveletter to the pain of being human, Manchester is a film I need to see many more times. It feeds some need deeper than that for cheap laughs and fairytale endings. Go see it before the Oscars.