Review: Grief Storms Over Magnificent ‘Manchester by the Sea’

"Manchester by the Sea" (2016) - Movie Review

‘Manchester by the Sea’ Faces the Uneasy Realism of Grief

Grief is a powerful emotion that can steer one’s life in the worst of directions. It’s rare in contemporary cinema to see it captured and explored with such raw authentic precision. However, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea pulls off the remarkable feat like no other film in recent years.

Watching Manchester by the Sea is like a front row seat to life’s gut-wrenching turmoils. Casey Affleck plays Lee, a janitor in Massachusetts, who clearly isn’t the most likable guy. He tends to keep to himself for the most. Still Manchester descends into his anti-social tendencies as he instigates a few confrontations involving his tenants and locals at the bar. One day, he receives a phone call from a family friend that his brother (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a heart attack.

Lee quickly finds himself weighed down with his late brother’s affairs, forcing him to temporarily relocate to Manchester-by-the-Sea. The most crucial is taking in his underage teenage nephew and assuming the role of guardian. Being a surrogate parent is something Lee has no interest in. He’s actually shocked that his brother would task him with this duty, though a family friend would be better suitable. His initial reaction isn’t clear why he’s so adamant against taking in his nephew. But this is where Manchester by the Sea begins to unravel Lee’s psyche in flashback.

Kenneth Lonergan isn’t a frequent director with Manchester by the Sea being his third film since 2000. But when he delivers, he packs his dramatic punches. After the critically-acclaimed You Can Count on Me in 2000 and Margaret in 2011, the riveting emotional depth in Manchester by the Sea comes as no surprise. As both writer and director, Lonergan truly has free reign to get inside the head of Lee with natural transitions between past and present. And while not everything is spelled out, we can theorize which triggers of potential negligence or immaturity sent a ripple effect into the present. Upon initial viewing, it’s easy to lose track of past and present as the screenplay blends everything together in a cohesive unit.

SEE ALSO: TIFF 2016 Review: Manchester by the Sea

Affleck shines in both time periods, ranging from his character’s recklessness in his youth to his reclusive behavior in present time. While impressive in both The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Gone Baby Gone, it’ll be his role here in Manchester by the Sea that nails him the well-deserved Oscar. Lonergan’s screenplay invites its audience to a dynamic study of Lee’s grief. Poignant to a fault, the journey we go on with him hurts at times as we empathize with his character. He’s takes double the hits with his relationship with Chandler and ex Michelle Williams in the past and nephew Patrick in the present.

Where Manchester by the Sea succeeds best is witnessing the uneasy bond between uncle and nephew. While Affleck and Hedges have impeccable chemistry on-screen, the characters struggle with the other. Lee has difficulty being there for his nephew Patrick in his time of need. Patrick, however is a vulnerable young man who’s lost his father and trying his hardest to live a normal teenage life. Despite the somber tones, Lonergan does throw in a few humorous adolescent moments. But with such conviction, Manchester masterfully toys with a gloomy coming-of-age tale on top of a mountain of grief.

Manchester by the Sea is a realistic window into what happens when stricken by an unexpected death. A fragile fragment of life isn’t necessarily some cookie-cutter three act structure and Manchester never tries to force a more orthodox narrative. Lonergan’s screenplay is never compromised for a more mainstream artificiality.

Manchester by the Sea has been on the radar since Sundance this past January and TIFF in September. There’s a logical reason why too. Nearing 140 minutes, there’s much to consume throughout its slightly slow and mature pace. But even if the burn takes its time, our investment in the lives of Lee and Patrick is worthy of examination.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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