Manchester by the Sea


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Longtime admirers of filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan will celebrate his third effort as writer-director when “Manchester by the Sea” moves into theaters, bringing with it plenty of buzz surrounding the performances of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. Extending his reputation for astonishing voices and unforgettable characters, Lonergan also continues his unflinching affair with the darkness. Affleck’s morose, taciturn loner Lee Chandler faces a deeply buried personal tragedy when he is named as the guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The past intrudes on the present, and Lonergan weaves together the strands of several deeply moving stories.

Confidently structuring the events of the narrative to cleave along abrupt jumps back and forth in time, Lonergan’s bold choices pay off as the movie unfolds. While the central relationship between Lee and Patrick maneuvers around the sharp humor of the nephew’s amorous juggling of two girlfriends and the struggle of the two bereaved men to cope with loss, Lonergan’s ambitious agenda vaults into Lee’s history, initially presenting a happier man in a loving marriage with Randi (Williams). The marked contrast in Lee then and Lee now piques viewer interest, deepening our curiosity and tightening the suspense as Lonergan leads us toward the grim explanation for Lee’s metamorphosis.

Akin to the gut-wrenching personal devastation examined in great films like “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Rachel Getting Married,” Lonergan’s fascination is not so much with the details of the disastrous event itself but rather the ways in which life must go on. Lee carries with him a heavy burden, keenly felt given the amount of time we spend with him. But Lonergan lets us see how other family members and friends grapple with moving on if not moving forward. Williams is so brilliant you’ll wish she was in more scenes, but it only takes one late exchange between Randi and Lee – an absolutely fierce and emotionally raw admission – for her to establish another career highpoint.

For all his prowess as a crafter of beautiful exchanges of dialogue – comic, bitter, revelatory, and everything in between – Lonergan is just as capable of taking the tiniest, most mundane banalities and tweaking them into miniature epiphanies. A hockey practice interrupted with bad news, a fishing expedition peppered with good-natured teasing, a chilly exchange while trying to remember the location of the parked car, a vibrating cell phone during a funeral, a sickbed negotiation for sex – these seemingly insignificant flashes accrete into a memorable whole.

Lonergan knows exactly how to introduce information within the course of a scene that forces the viewer to recalibrate expectations. He also withholds enough exposition to keep the guesses coming. Rhythms and textures dependent on setting are infused with the same level of respect and importance the director showed to the fictionalized Catskill Mountains locales of “You Can Count on Me” and the New York City of “Margaret.” Not unlike Lonergan’s well-documented battle over the protracted running time of the latter film, several observers have endorsed cuts to the 135-minute length of “Manchester by the Sea,” presumably to brighten commercial prospects.

I wouldn’t change a frame.

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