Kenneth Lonergan may have only directed two films prior to Manchester by the Sea, but You Can Count on Me and Margaret were two of the best films of their respective years, and Margaret became a significant cause célèbre following its four year delay in making it to the screen and what appeared to be attempts by Fox Searchlight to bury it. Manchester by the Sea therefore arrives in a climate of significant anticipation, but Lonergan has more than lived up to his reputation as a master dramatist and delivered a film that is as emotionally rich, as technically accomplished, and as devastatingly emotional as his two previous cinematic treasures.
As emotionally rich, as technically accomplished, and as devastatingly emotional as his two previous cinematic treasures.
Manchester by the Sea’s story is essentially told linearly, but Lonergan, working with editor Jennifer Lame, also drip feeds us backstory throughout the film with the complex use of flashbacks. The film begins, following a very brief prologue sequence, with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) travelling back to his home town of Manchester – a city just north of Boston – following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). There he must deal with the grief over his brother’s death and the fact that Joe has left his son in Lee’s care. But most significantly, Lee must also deal with the ghosts of his past and the event that led him to leave Manchester, only to return when it was absolutely necessary.
Lonergan doesn’t immediately reveal what the trauma that Lee is dealing with is – when we do discover the exact nature of his grief it is emotionally devastating – and by peeling back the layers of his character in the ‘present’, whilst at the same time peeling back the layers of his character through flashbacks, he allows us to engage with the emotions at the story’s core in a complex and rich fashion. We form unavoidable opinions about Lee and develop attitudes regarding choices he’s made or decisions he is making, but as Lonergan clues us in on his past these are broken down just as they are being built up. The effect is one that makes for a highly engaging film both emotionally and intellectually.
The way in which Lonergan edits these flashbacks into the ‘present’ story is also far from standard, with one scene in particular standing out as both highly effective and markedly unusual. As Lee sits opposite a lawyer, who is talking to him about his custody of Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), the scene flicks back multiple times to the devastating event in Lee’s past that left him broken and estranged from his wife. There is a rhythm to this cutting that builds to a climax and the effect is unsettling, but also works in an almost pummelling fashion to hit us hard with the emotions on screen. The effect of some of the faster cuts in Manchester by the Sea is more pronounced, as Lonergan lets large parts of the film play out in relatively leisurely takes and also makes use of ‘pillow shots’ to give you time to reflect, and for things to sink in. A scene in which Lee reaches rock bottom following the tragic event is perhaps the best example of this, with Lonergan playing out preceding scenes scored with rich classical music and unfussy camerawork and editing. As Lee reaches a highly emotionally fraught state there are suddenly a number of staccato fast cuts and switches of camera angle. It’s a shock to the system, his emotional breakdown effectively conveyed and its emotional weight superbly communicated to the audience.
Affleck is astounding as Lee too, conveying a great deal about Lee’s emotional turmoil, despite the character, for the most part, internalising every difficult feeling. Every crack in his voice or an avoidance of eye contact is an elegantly simple moment in which Affleck can imbue Lee with heartbreaking intensity.
Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally devastating and exquisitely well made drama. Not just a masterpiece, but Kenneth Lonergan’s third masterpiece. An extraordinary achievement.