Published Jan 28, 2016Plagued by oppressive winds, icy pavements and ceaseless waves, the Massachusetts on display in Manchester by the Sea is a cold, dark place. That makes it the perfect setting for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's slow-burning parable about regret and redemption.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a quiet caretaker working in Boston. When his brother Joe (Kyle "Coach Taylor" Chandler) passes away from a degenerative heart condition, Lee must return to Manchester-by-the-Sea and get his family business in order. That means funeral arrangements, legal proceedings and deciding what to do with Joe's son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who's no longer in contact with his mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) after she unraveled from alcoholism.
While he's there, however, Lee must also face the demons of his past, among them his former family with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Without revealing details, we learn that Lee's life is tainted with unspeakable tragedy.
Like many Massachusetts characters past, Lee is both stoic and agitated, a guarded raw nerve. Part of that stems from his past, but it's also symptomatic of his surroundings. Everyone seems like they could either erupt in a bareknuckle fight or a tearful embrace at any moment.
With its impossibly heavy story, ruthless setting and 135-minute runtime, Manchester by the Sea could have been a slog. Instead it's a wonderfully paced, pensive drama. Sure, the heaviness is occasionally alleviated with some humour, but the film mostly works because of its performances, with each actor cast to their strengths.
Affleck is outstanding as Lee, perfectly walking the thin line between damaged adult and unhinged maniac. Chandler too delivers as Joe, offering the sort of paternal warmth that he's built a career on. Williams holds her own as a broken ex-wife, while Hedges perfectly nails the annoying self-centredness of any real-life 16-year-old.
The characters are complex, the drama is complex and the cinematography is astounding. Though its subject is heavy as hell, Manchester by the Sea is still an onscreen delight that'll surely be remembered as one of 2016's best dramas.