Casey Affleck Delivers In Manchester by the Sea
December 5, 2016
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has remained quietly under the radar for the past 16 years, his 2000 debut You Can Count On Me debuting to rave reviews and two Academy Award nominations but his notoriously tortured Margaret failing to make waves. Fortunately, he’s finally back under the spotlight with Manchester by the Sea, a masterful rumination on grief that features not only the best performance of the year from star Casey Affleck, but quite possibly the best performance of the decade.
The film follows Lee Chandler (Affleck), a handyman from Boston who, for reasons deliberately explained over the course of the film’s first half, has allowed life to essentially drift past him for quite a while. When Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly passes away, he’s forced to return to his hometown of Manchester, where he suffered an unforgettable tragedy years before. There, he learns that guardianship of Joe’s 16-year old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) has been left to him without his consent, leaving Lee the decision of denying his brother’s wishes or staying in the town that left him a shell of his former self.
It’s Lonergan’s unshakable mastery of dialogue that allows for the film’s endless power, the former playwright’s penchant for gripping, vibrant realism on full effect throughout. Wisely, he also allows a surprising amount of humor to seep into this tragic tale, the film somehow ranking not only as the most human film of the year but also its most consistently funny.
It’s that humanity that makes the film what it is, Manchester by the Sea ranking among the most authentic films ever made, not a single scene, line, or subtle look not coming off as fully believable. From the film’s perfect portrayal of memory, flashbacks to Lee’s past appearing not at random but entirely organically, to Patrick’s breakdown when he opens the freezer door following a painful realization, each and every moment feels inspired in its honesty.
Even more genuine is the film’s perfect visualization of grief, among the most universal feelings of humanity. Unlike more standard Oscar season fare, the film does not portray a man on the track to coping but a man incapable of ever finding himself out of that all consuming shadow. When at one point confronted by Patrick over the guardianship, Lee simply replies, “I can’t beat it,”; rarely has a single line encapsulated a character as layered as this one so flawlessly.
Lonergan’s wall of authenticity could quickly crumble however, had he miscast a single one of these roles. Luckily, he more than succeeded, as Manchester by the Sea features the year’s best cast yet. As Patrick, Hedges announces himself as a true young talent, capturing both the charisma of the rebellious teenager but also the humanity of a boy thrust into a world lacking his father. In only about five scenes peppered throughout the film, Michelle Williams turns in her finest work since Blue Valentine as Lee’s ex-wife, a third act encounter between the two one of the film’s most powerful passages.
This is undeniably Affleck’s film to own though, and he knocks it out of the park, delivering the performance of a lifetime. Where a lesser actor would have collapsed under the emotionality of the script and devolved into melodrama, Affleck sagely internalizes everything, never allowing Lee’s rock hard shell to burst. Likely the best lead performance in recent memory (he’s all but guaranteed a win at this year’s Academy Awards), he lends immeasurable depth to a character already brimming with it.
Among the best films of 2016, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a film of boundless depth, a brilliant and honest meditation on grief and it’s sometimes inescapable grip that’s made even more effective by a phenomenal lead performance from Casey Affleck.