Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret
Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Kimberly Steward, Kevin J. Walsh
Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
2016 doesn’t deserve a film as good as Manchester By The Sea. To say that Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is the best film of his career may not seem like it means much, given that it’s only his third feature in 16 years after You Can Count on Me and the notoriously delayed Margaret. However, considering the fact that those two films are near masterpieces, giving Manchester By The Sea that qualification means that it ranks among the best of the century so far, and quite easily stands as the best film I’ve seen this year with only a month left to go for the unlucky contenders looking to unseat it. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so few Lonergan films over the course of such a long time, especially when you can’t turn around without another superhero extravaganza smacking you in the face, but if it takes this long for him to consistently deliver at this level of quality, then it is damn sure worth the wait. Manchester By The Sea takes the ideas and the skills that he’s been honing in his craft over his first two features and fine tunes them to create something devastating, beguiling, incredibly intimate, and emotionally raw.
Centered on janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who returns to his hometown that gives the film its title after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lonergan’s film is as honest an exploration of grief as we’ve seen in the movies, examining both the immediate after effect of a devastating loss, as well as the ripples that continue to live on with us years after the fact, as the present day storyline is cut in with flashbacks to explain why Lee has shut himself off from the world to such a degree. Lonergan uses a brilliant and unconventional structure to dole out these fragments of the past in a way that feels almost poetic, like the waves of the sea splashing up against the present day as Lee struggles to face all of these old memories and suffers the guilt and self-destructive anger that he’s tried so hard to bury inside by running away all these years. Against his knowledge, Joe has named him the guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), forcing Lee to stick around longer than he had planned to try to figure out what to do with the boy, but it’s only a matter of time before the weight of this trauma crashes into him and finally knocks him over.
Led by an absolute powerhouse performance from the understated, incomparable Casey Affleck, there are scenes in Manchester By The Sea as devastating, grueling, almost impossible to watch through sheer heartache as any I’ve seen in recent years, and yet at the same time Lonergan knows that life is never a monotonous experience. Even in the most tragic of times, where it feels like all of our pain is insurmountable, there are moments of genuine humor, of awkwardness, of sheer unencumbered humanity that pop up to cut through the tension. The world doesn’t stop being the world just because we’re suffering, and so rarely has a filmmaker been able to capture this concept in such a genuine, organic way as this. Manchester By The Sea is an utterly wrenching watch at times, particularly in one standout scene featuring a performance from the great Michelle Williams (who is such a welcome sight to see back on our screens this year) that just tears the house down, but what’s most surprising is how hilarious it can be as well. Lonergan has such an acute finger on the pulse of humanity, all of its highs and lows and everything in between, and Manchester By The Sea is the most fully realized display of his powers to date.