Honestly exploring the myriad impacts on a family of an untimely death is something most films always struggle with. They search for huge, bombastic emotional displays that leave little room for the confusing subtleties that actually accompany genuine loss. Such problems are not faced by Manchester by the Sea, an outstanding achievement by Kenneth Lonergan, creating a stunning study of how deaths are dealt with by the living, anchored by a towering performance from Casey Affleck. From the very first scene, Lonergan presents us with an intricately detailed and utterly believable look at family ties, and his deep and compassionate understanding of people remains at the fore for the entire film.
At the heart of what makes Manchester by the Sea‘s script such a brilliant triumph is that it’s incredibly funny. Going into the film knowing just the rather bleak-sounding synopsis, the first big laughs come as a surprise, but once you settle into the film’s rhythm, they arrive more and more frequently. Any given scene can turn from heart-rending to hilarious in a split-second, but there’s never a tonal whiplash. Reality is messy, we feel things that the social contract says we probably shouldn’t and the world never stops turning just for our tragedies.
These tragedies form the main story of Manchester by the Sea, as handyman Lee Chandler (Affleck) is forced by the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) to act as the sole legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This tale is told non-linearly, plenty of flashbacks ensuring that we get a complete picture of the Chandler family and how circumstances profoundly alter its structures and relationships. These movements through time are never flashily announced, simply trusting the audience to understand what’s going on. This implicit faith in the viewer’s intelligence really serves to underline just how smart the rest of the film is.
As with the unshowy time-jumps, Lonergan’s direction eschews typical flourishes, though it is never pedestrian. His shot composition is wonderfully layered, providing a rarely-seen level of unity of storytelling between the script and the visuals. It’s an intimate story, but also one with a near-epic scope, and Lonergan manages to mix those two seemingly competing styles together seamlessly. As Lee and Patrick bond, we simultaneously learn more of Lee’s past. The man’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and the steady reveal of what that weight is is perfectly judged.
Immediately noticeable in Affleck’s performance is the physical duress that this emotional weight puts Lee under. As we see him fixing up apartments for largely ungrateful tenants, we can tell that something haunts him, purely through Affleck’s physical performance and incredibly subtle facial tics. It’s a masterpiece of restrained emotion, absolutely the best acting of the year, and only gets better as the film goes on, leaving us with a performance for the ages, something that should quickly become essential study for anyone looking to act on screen. Lucas Hedges, in his biggest film role to date, proves a fantastic foil to Affleck’s deep sadness, consistently very funny, and the two have an electrifying chemistry.
Kyle Chandler turns in the insightful display one would expect from him, and Michelle Williams, though in only a few scenes, impresses in all of them. But this is Affleck’s film, magisterially bringing to life a near-perfectly written character. Kenneth Lonergan’s last film, Margaret, released five years ago and only after years of development hell. After Manchester by the Sea, the idea of an equivalent wait for Lonergan’s follow-up seems unbearable. One of the very best films of the year, with some of the finest acting you’ll ever see, Manchester by the Sea is absolutely essential viewing and should by all rights join La La Land in dominating this year’s awards season.