Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” caused a sensation in Sundance last January. Ever since then, wherever it’s played, the kudos have been brimming over.
I finally got to see this remarkable drama this afternoon. It’s a relief when a film has not been oversold. “Manchester” is one of those rare instant masterpieces, perfect in every way. Lonergan, who wrote and directed “You Can Count on Me” and wrote the great play “This is Our Youth,” had notable travails with his film “Margaret,” has achieved an old fashioned success. This is his original screenplay, not based on a book or anything else. It’s sprung from his head as a dramatist. “Manchester” is a rare work of art and genius that will move you and make you laugh in unexpected ways.
Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career as Lee Chandler, a kind of everyman who has suffered mind blowing tragedy already before the movie begins. Now his brother Joe (played by Kyle Chandler– the name thing is a coincidence) dies unexpectedly and Lee must pick up the pieces. This means deciding whether or not to become guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick, played with aplomb by Lucas Hedges (real life son of director Peter Hedges).
Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex wife, Gretchen Mol is Joe’s ex and Patrick’s mother. CJ Wilson is the patient, family friend. They are uniformly excellent, but I do think Williams — who shares a scene with Affleck toward the end that no one will forget– is on her way to an Oscar nomination with Casey and young Mr. Hedges.
Lonergan sets all of this in Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts, a working class sub-suburb of Boston. I liked that the Boston accent was tempered in this film and not as extreme as it’s been lately in movies made by Casey’s brother, Ben, and so on. The accent here resembles the pace of the film– relaxed and measured. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a film like “Manchester,” which seems to unfold for a while almost in real time. I don’t mean it’s slow at all. It’s not. But the development of many plot points is not unraveled before we gain access to the characters.
I was a big supporter of Casey Affleck when he was in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” (Not typing that again– hereafter known just as “Jesse James.”) His laconic and sorrowful performance earned him an Oscar nomination. Affleck has mastered sorrow on screen, not an easy thing to do. And Lee Chandler has plenty of it. He is the most put up on character in a drama I’ve seen since Bruce Greenwood in “The Sweet Hereafter”– and this is the saddest film since that one. Sorrow doesn’t mean weak, and you will find that you root for Lee from beginning to end. And even when the characters’ final plans may not equal your idea for them, you will find that Lonergan has let them earn a certain satisfaction.
Just a beautiful film, from top to bottom. Many nominations are coming, if that’s important. “Manchester” joins “Lion,” “La La Land,” “Sully,” “The Birth of a Nation” among my choices for best films of 2016.