Christian Ziolkowski ’20 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
In the early scenes of Manchester By The Sea we watch Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, wander through his mundane existence as a handyman. He listens to his working-class customers tell pointless stories, day in and day out. But when his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies, he stops listening to these stories and finds himself living one. The film’s premise is not a complex one: a man’s brother dies and he is forced to take care of his teenage nephew. But a career-defining performance and an incredible attention to detail elevate Kenneth Longerman’s third feature into an instant classic. It reminds us that everyone has a story, and that even the simplest lives can be poetic when viewed from the right perspective.
From the moment Affleck appears on screen, we see that Lee is a tortured man. His life is simultaneously unfulfilling and overwhelming. But when his brother dies, he does not hesitate to do the right thing. He drives to Manchester by the Sea, the small Massachusetts town where he grew up and where his brother still lived. He does everything expected of him with a haunting calmness. As he goes to the hospital, makes funeral arrangements, and reads his brother’s will, it becomes clear that he does not fully understand his feelings. But he draws from a reserve of strength, doing what needs to be done because there is nobody else to do it.
Lee moves in with his sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and takes care of him as arrangements are being made. While Lee initially comes across as a tragic hero, Longerman makes Patrick incredibly difficult to love. He seems unfazed by his father’s death, and ungrateful to his uncle. But Lee is incredibly sympathetic, and does his best to make things easy for Patrick. The extent of Lee’s sacrifice is most striking as he watches television by himself while Patrick eats pizza with his friends on the night after his father died. When we see the pain in Lee’s eyes, we realize that Patrick may be in denial, but Lee is trying to be there for his nephew. Even if no one is there for Lee. As the film progresses and the two men try cope, Longerman provides no easy answers. Patrick is not bad enough to make us lose sympathy for him, and Lee is far from perfect. Both victims of the randomness of life, they struggle to communicate but never lose their deep affection for one another.
Manchester By The Sea is a triumph, and much of this is due to Casey Affleck, who gives the best male performance the world has seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Lee is a deeply flawed man who has been dealt a truly horrible hand in life, but he is trying to do the right thing here, even though he doesn’t always succeed. Affleck’s haunting portrayal does not skew too far towards the positive or negative aspects of his personality. He commands the screen with an incredible complexity, creating a character that is full of emotion in every shot, despite his inability to effectively express himself.
The film’s other great strength lies is Longerman’s directing, particularly his incredible attention to detail. Starting with the film’s gorgeous opening shot of the sea, he never wastes a frame. Whether it is a chain link fence that is bent ever-so-perfectly or a can of Coca-Cola adding a melancholic touch of color to an otherwise plain room, Longerman’s thoroughness creates a world that is simultaneously real and poetic.
A case could be made that this movie is a gift to humanity. In a world that is becoming increasingly divided, our art is becoming increasingly cynical. Many recent “Oscar movies” tend to focus on drawing attention to the worst aspects of human society, portraying bad people in bad situations. In the midst of all of this, Manchester By The Sea operates on the assumption that humans are fundamentally good. Lee and the people of Manchester don’t handle every problem perfectly, but they are truly trying their best. Manchester By The Sea is everything art can and should be.
Overall Grade: A
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