Kenneth Lonergan has already authored Margaret (2011) and You Can Count on Me (2000), but still remains a relatively unknown filmmaker. You might have heard about him if you follow Scorsese’s movies. Lonergan wrote the script for the ambitious Gangs of New York (2002). Manchester by The Sea is an ordinary story about a man hesitating to reconnect with his relatives. What is unusual and extraordinary is the way the story is told.
The film starts and the dialogue has already begun. There is a feeling of disconnection with the events that took place earlier that lingers throughout the film. Eventually some flashbacks shed light on why Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is such a miserable man. Now he is a handyman in Massachusetts who enjoys getting into trouble. He argues with his clients, he does not tolerate his boss and he keeps his adrenaline high by engaging in pub brawls. A phone call interrupts this chain of maladjusted facts. His older brother Joe had died of a heart attack in Manchester-By-The-Sea, Massachusetts, and a solicitor reveals he is now the guardian of his teenage nephew.
There is a strange feeling in the air. Why would Joe make such a choice? After all, Lee cannot even take care of himself. It is obvious that something wrong led to the current situation. What was it?
The film continues in a narrative that looms very slowly. Lonergan invites the audience to untangle the wires of sorrows in which Lee is trapped. Affleck gives an appropriately intense interpretation of a man driven by his grief. His performance is suffocated by silence and misunderstandings, but there is also a good dose of humour. Affleck is responsible for the fame of the buzziest films of the year’s festival. A safe bet for international awards, too.
Gradually, Lee stops resisting his nephew. Played by Lucas Hedges (The Zero Theorem by Terry Gilliam, 2014), Patrick is a popular kid on the block, both with girls and mates. His mother divorced Joe years ago and she is not interested in bringing him to her new home. Eventually Lee will have to decide if he should keep his troubled life in Boston or come back to the city he wants to forget.
Manchester by The Sea is a compelling tale of escapism. All main characters crave for mercy, and this morose pace remains bitter for some time. But Lonergan’s capacity to entertain results in a driving force of change and redemption.
The movie is out in cinemas on Friday, January 13th.
This piece was originally written when the film showed as part of the BFI London Film Festival in October 2016.
You can also watch the film trailer below: