Written & Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
There are many definitions of “paradise”. Truly, it depends on who is defining it. The tropics may do it for some, while an idyllic seaside town may be the definition for some. Even rolling plains or majestic mountain landscapes can be seen as beautiful paradises. But in reality, paradise is nothing more than a mental state, somewhere in our head where we are happy. Certainly there are specific physical locations which may make happiness easier to obtain, but they are not devoid of sadness, just as drab, boring places are not also devoid of happiness. There is beauty in everything, there is sadness in everything. How much of each grabs hold of you is dependent upon the subject. In Kenneth Lonergan’s (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) Manchester By the Sea, the titular town seems to be at a crossroads of both heaven and hell for its lead character.
Lee (Casey Affleck) is the likable uncle to a great kid, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and brother to a hometown favorite, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Living over an hour away from Manchester-by-the-sea in Boston, where he works as a janitor/handyman for 4 different apartment buildings, we see Lee living a rather mundane day-to-day life. When he gets a call from family friend George (C.J. Wilson), informing him that Joe has suddenly passed away, Lee’s life is turned upside down as he must make the trek to Manchester to relive the harsh memories that pushed him away in the first place. Along the way Lee encounters his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), Joe’s ex-wife (Gretchen Mol), and a few of Patrick’s girlfriends as he copes with being his nephew’s new guardian, the sudden increase in responsibilities, and the weight of his past which helps to inform his trepidation to be more social and to strive for a new life back in Manchester-by-the-sea.
If I would say anything about Manchester By the Sea, it would be that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is calculated, which may carry the connotation that the film may come across as either cold or distant. It’s not. At all. Instead, Lonergan makes Manchester By the Sea a calculated film in that he has somehow captured life in a bottle and, in retelling its story, is able to show the restraint necessary to allow that story to unravel at the perfect pace. A film that ambles by at a leisurely pace never rushes into its scenes, while also never lingering for too long. Lonergan is able to leave the camera running just to the point to catch those special, silent moments, and move us along when the timing is just right. There is a lot to be said for Lonergan and his control of the story here, as well as his vision and compassion for these characters.
But for as special as Lonergan is as the director of this film, his role as writer may surpass it. The characters are full-bodied, torn by their past and hopeful for their futures. Told in intermittent flashbacks, we must trust what Lonergan is doing until time he peels back another layer from the past to better explain the torture of the lead in the film, Lee. As Lee, Casey Affleck shines. Since his phenomenally understated performance in The Assassination of Jesse James, Affleck has been an actor I have been pining to see more of. His performance here justifies that anticipation. Again understated and mysterious, the horrors of his past are evident in his silence and general awkwardness, but the heartbeat of the film is how Lonergan and Affleck are able to slowly reveal his character, his past. Seeing the fleeting moments of hope and happiness as they occasionally occur under his new role as guardian of Patrick, give the audience an equal amount of hope and happiness, but as in life, there will always be his inescapable past.
I was endlessly impressed by Lonergan’s ability to give us very real moments. Ultimately this film is not bubbly, it has its fair share of sadness and unfortunate circumstance, uphill climbs and unforgettable, unforgivable pasts, but it’s also funny in all the right places, happy and jovial in all the right places. It crafts situations pulled from real life with unexpected and oftentimes brutal honesty. It doesn’t ever feel staged or put on. This is real life in many ways. Lonergan captures that. We have come to the time of year where most of the awards contender films begin to be released, so I am sure my Top of the Year list will see some fast and furious movement before becoming finalized, but for the time being, Manchester By the Sea quickly shoots up that list as one of the very best of the year. In fact, I would be surprised if much else this year competed with it. Or rather, if it should, we are in for a very good end of the year in cinema.