The death of a family member creates the strangest void in a person’s life. Barring personal illness, nothing stops life in its tracks in quite the same way. Work is put on hold, dinners are cancelled, and sometimes, individuals are wrenched from their very existence to fulfil their various newfound duties. In Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial feature, this person is Lee (Casey Affleck) who finds himself having to return to the hometown from which he fled to attempt to cope with his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) death. An eloquent and traumatically emotional film, Manchester By The Sea is masterful.
The film opens to a curious montage of various lives as Lee, a custodian, visits several residents to fix the various issues their homes have accrued. A wonderful snapshot of the ways in which we make our beds and engage with those around us. Receiving the devastating news thrusts him back to a place he’d hope to have forgotten, and we quietly watch as he adapts to responsibilities new and old, including the heavy burden of a guardianship he knew nothing about. The film flits between the past and the present using not so much flashbacks as vignettes from Lee’s life, and it is exemplary of the possibilities of cinema. Lonergan’s picture relies on several factors to not become a tiresome feature; from casting to location, and particularly soundtrack, he has placed his faith in all the right places.
“eloquent and traumatically emotional”
Affleck delivers what is surely a career-defining performance as a man forced to cope with grief, some he thought was already buried, in an emphatically nuanced and delicate showing. Lucas Hedges, who many of us first saw as the victim of left-handed scissors in Moonrise Kingdom, also shines, and this is surely not the last we’ll see of him. Perhaps most enjoyable was Matthew Broderick who, despite only appearing for a single scene, provided a glorious comedic detour.
Shot on location, Manchester By The Sea is a sight to behold, maximising the widescreen ratio to bleakly stunning effect. The soundtrack, too, is astounding. Using a blend of classical, operatic, big band, and easy listening (with occasional band-in-a-garage breaks) Lonergan reflects the story unravelling in the most impressive manner.
Grief is a topic handled day after day in the cinema, but rarely will you find it presented so perfectly as Manchester By The Sea.
Image: Kenneth Lonergan