Review: In Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan crafts a subtle chef-d’oeuvre of tragedy, involving grief and only grief. And by mentioning ‘tragedy’, what I mean is the ancient form of drama – based on human suffering that appeals audiences’ pleasure; therefore, that doesn’t mean it is a tear-jerking melodrama, although it indeed is a bitter story. And, if Lonergan is the god of this story, this god must have laughed over the tragedy-by-tragedy that strikes its main protagonist and the surroundings.
Grief is what force-starts everything in Manchester by the Sea. There we meet our man, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck with devotion), a handyman in Boston and a divorcee. The conspiring nature calls Lee back to his home town, a Massachusetts coast town, Manchester-by-the-Sea, following the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). Lee is called to tend his brother’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), to mend his grief. Little did we know that the same town is where all Lee’s guilt and grief started; and, now, he must console his nephew from the pain Lee himself could not overcome.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t the film that exploits moments for over-dramatization. Every event is crafted smoothly and patiently, while the tone is consistently gloomy without having emotion-burst on screen. However, that doesn’t mean this film is emotionless. The emotions are all there – blending in with the air and with melancholy stares – as they remain inexpressible. Affleck’s Lee Chandler seems to restrain the flood of emotion, to shadow the harrowing past that gets him reluctant.
Only through a series of flash-backs we learn that Lee used to have a story in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). There’s not even a sign from his past that Lee’s mundane life conceals a life-defining jeopardy that results in this film. Only in two scenes, Lee’s harrowing past gets a crucial sneak peek. First, there’s an observation to a horror of a lifetime from the eyes of a man – who almost believed nothing in what he’d seen. And the other is Lee and Randi’s unexpected reunion – one of the most powerful scenes in 2016 – which signifies a colossal distance between them.
Yet, Lee’s haunting past is a fuel that gives meaning to the goal his character bears – to become Patrick’s guardian. The connection between the uncle and the nephew is an unprecedented one. There’s an old proverb: blind man leads another blind man, which seems suitable to define it. Lee thinks to bring Patrick to Boston, but the boy refuses. Thing is, they can bury Patrick’s father body before the winter ends, which practically traps Lee in a town he hates most. But, there he is – as isolated as he can be – trying to bond with his estranged nephew.
Once more, I must say if Kenneth Lonergan is the god of this story, he must have laughed over the pile of tragedy; but there it is, he gives meaning to the sadness, not as an excuse to get sappy. Characters in Manchester by the Sea are almost like people from real life, instead of some characters specifically written for this story to work. And, those characters are what makes Lonergan’s story works in and out, perfected with astonishing performances from its cast, especially Casey Affleck in his career-pinnacle exhibition.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)