Hi, I’m Chris Shelton and this is The Critical Picture, movie reviews you can count on. Today we’re looking at Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges.
What initially looks and feels like a pretty simple movie about a man who is not that interesting, not that motivated and who seems to have a real problem interacting with anyone else, is actually a very deep pool of human emotion and tragedy which very slowly gets around to revealing its full depth. The structure and pacing of this movie is not like most others. At two hours and 17 minutes, it feels like it actually goes on much longer and yet by the end I wasn’t particularly tired of it or checking the time because I would have been fine with continuing to follow the characters’ lives for a while longer.
Without getting into spoilers, let me explain the initial setup. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman in Massachusetts who, when we are introduced to him, is living alone in a basement room and fixes things in an apartment complex. He gets word that his brother, Joe, as played by Kyle Chandler, is in the hospital and races back to his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, only to find out that Joe died an hour before. What’s more, he also soon finds that his brother’s will has named him the guardian of his nephew, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. He’s far from thrilled with this curveball and the rest of the movie details how his life plays out under these new circumstances. However, it’s a lot more than that. As told in many and varied flashbacks, we get a backstory which makes everything about Lee’s character abundantly clear and horrifyingly tragic. I won’t say anything else.
Manchester by the Sea has a lot of things going on but the way it plays out, it’s told so simply and so intelligently that you don’t really realize how much is being dished out to you until it’s all over and you can think about it for a bit. In a lesser film, some of the subplots and devices that are used would seem staid or overdone or stereotypical, but not here. Kenneth Lonergan has short, clipped scenes that sometimes are only haf a minute long while others go on for quite some time, each one giving you more and more pieces of a three-dimensional picture of a man who has experienced perhaps some of the deepest tragedy you can imagine and yet is carrying on and finding some small bits of hope and forgiveness in his new circumstances. Told in such a realistic way that this could easily be the story of someone you know, there are never any moments where you stop and question what is going on and you are never distracted by some out-of-place or awkward shenanigans. In fact, the way the story is told and the scenes are set up, it forces you to pay attention to every detail. For example, there’s a scene when Lucas finds out about his father’s death which takes place on the far side of a hockey rink, all without any dialog and yet when you watch the body language you know exactly what is going on. While the pacing is slow, sometimes too much so, there’s not really any wasted shots or scenes here.
A movie like this only works because it is built on a solid foundation of stellar performances and Lonegran definitely got everything these actors had to give, especially of course from Casey Affleck, who is in almost every scene. Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife, and while she’s not on screen for that much time, her connection with Lee and their shared history is portrayed stunningly well. At times, you almost feel like you are spying on people’s most intimate private life. The performances are so natural, it doesn’t look or feel for even one moment like anyone in this movie is reciting lines from a script.
An intelligent, very hard to label movie with excellent acting, direction and writing, I’m giving Manchester by the Sea a rating of Sheer Awesomeness. This movie is not for everyone but if you appreciate these qualities in a film and want to see a movie about real life that is about as real as you can get without being based on a true story, then this one is for you.
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