This masterpiece by Kenneth Lonergan is on the lips of the industry these days, nominated for various awards across the board. Perhaps you’ve heard that the score is exquisite. Perhaps you’ve heard that Casey Affleck is stupefyingly incredible. And perhaps you’ve heard that it’s the saddest goddamn thing most movie goers have ever seen. I can confirm that whether or not any of those reviews have fell upon your ears, all are undeniably correct.
The film takes viewers on a journey in which we collect scraps of knowledge all out of order. Not only does this serve as an interesting narrative, it also entices the audience and asks them to think ahead. At the beginning of the film, I immediately liked the stoic, solemn character that Affleck portrays. I didn’t know what to make of him. How old was he supposed to be? He could be twenty-five, he might be forty. I’ll admit that I’m entirely terrible at guessing the age of human beings, but to me it was not immediately clear whether Lee was a broken man with baggage, or a quiet sort of young hermit who had accepted his lot in life was to plunge people’s toilets and shovel a distressing amount of snow.
The story continues and as a viewer, I can assure you that your heart will slowly start bleeding out. Even the coldest, most dead heart I am convinced will be blown open by this film. When Lee’s brother dies and his nephew is thereby essentially parentless (his alcoholic mother mostly out of the picture, we later discover), Lee is thrust back into his hometown and expected to bear the brunt of everything he has purposefully run away from. As the situation develops, there is humor and heart and truth in every exchange. Neither Lee, nor any other character, is particularly skilled at keeping things together or communicating all that needs to be communicated. But in the silence and evasions of each character, along with the frequent drinking and subliminal pain, the hardness of life and truth of human emotion flood the film with a powerful sense of reality.
The backdrop of a traditional New England town lends a tough beauty to the picture, also displaying what types of things are valued by the characters of this story. They appreciate beer, hockey, the sea. They value family, even if that sentiment is never put into so many words. You can see that it’s true in their actions and structure of life. Blood ties run deep and the townspeople know everything about everyone. Ultimately it is disclosed–in the most painful scene of all–exactly why Lee is treated either with kid gloves, or as a social pariah by most everyone in Manchester.
With a performance like Affleck’s, it was doubtful whether anyone could carry the role of his ex-wife, Randi. Michelle Williams makes it clear, however, that she is fully capable of expressing the agonizing pain and brokenness of her character. Altogether she is onscreen for less than twenty minutes surely, but her performance is automatically unforgettable. The horrors Randi and Lee have experienced have driven them apart, and upon their reunion not much is verbally resolved. But it is in the back and forth and struggle of the two characters to somehow relay this brokenness to one another, that the film reaches its most memorable, most outstanding scene.
It is the simplicity of Manchester and its unassuming nature that cement the film as one of the truly great works of recent years. Before seeing it myself, I had hear from multiple friends and acquaintances, “You have to see it. I mean, don’t see it, because it’s heartbreaking. But still, you have to see it.” I had no idea what their poorly constructed review meant, but upon walking out of the theater with track lines of tears still present on my face, I understood. So see this movie. See it to be reminded of loss and pain, but also family and the sheer conundrum of life. See it if you just need to feel something; see it and be leveled back down to the ground zero of human emotion.
(Manchester by the Sea is an Amazon Studios Production. All rights reserved. )