Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

‘Manchester by the Sea’ follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an emotionally withdrawn and troubled man, as he returns to his small hometown of Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts, after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). With this tragic premise, the film is emotionally raw from start to finish, a heart wrenching story of loss, but also one that is hugely insightful, as well as laced with warmth and even humour. Family dysfunctions and relationships of all kinds are explored as Lee struggles with his brother’s unexpected last request for him to become the guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his teenage son. It’s not so much that he is unwilling to take on his nephew, although he certainly struggled with suddenly being responsible for a teenager, but it’s the prospect of moving back to Manchester that he wants to avoid at all costs. Despite the occasional visit, he had put the place firmly behind him after a devastating event caused him to move away to Boston. For this is a tender character study, examining Lee and the painful past that haunts him. I won’t spoil this, for the harrowing flashback is a key reveal in why Lee refuses to move back permanently, as well as being utterly heart wrenching. This is a study of a life destroyed, a man trapped in tragedy, and rooted in regret and self-loathing.

Director Kenneth Lonergan has skilfully avoided the film ever feeling overly sentimental, clichéd or cheesy, a common trap for films about loss. Even with all the raw emotion of the film, it’s never once over the top. Everything feels natural, the situation is at once crushingly terrible and yet mundane, and the cast each give powerful performances, simmering with taught emotion that only occasionally bubbles over. Lee is withdrawn from the world, barely letting anyone in or anything out, subdued and irritable, and largely unresponsive to affection from those around him; a stark contrast compared with the Lee we see in his flashbacks, where he is an affectionate husband to his then wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and a fun uncle with Patrick. Now, his only emotional outbursts are ones of anger, drunkenly getting into fights in bars. Behind Affleck’s frosty composure is a raging fire of anger. When Lee arrives at the hospital, there’s no huge, melodramatic scene of grieving. Instead it’s awkward as the doctors go through the formalities, and Lee has to be taken down to the morgue to see Joe laying in a body bag, where he simply and tenderly hugs and kisses his brother goodbye. It’s far from the dramatic bedside tears we’re used to in death scenes, and feels far more natural. It feels how this scene might play out in real life, not in a movie.

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Patrick can barely make it into the room when he comes to see his father’s body, and handles his death rather stoically. He often comes across as selfish, demanding that Lee drive him to band practice and refusing to move away from his hometown, but then he has moments of tenderness too, with close friendships and respectfully asking Lee for permission to invite friends round, still walking that fine line of adolescence, not a child but not yet a man. We also get the impression that he too restrains his emotion, and when he does have an emotional outburst, it is sparked off by a seemingly insignificant thing: a packet of frozen chicken. However, insignificant it is not, as Lonergan cleverly uses this imagery to recall an earlier conversation with Lee, where they discuss his Joe’s body being in the morgue – essentially a giant freezer. The sight of that frozen meat is too much for Patrick, and a reflection of how the smallest things can rattle us when we’re grieving. As he freaks out, beginning to hyperventilate, Lee attempts to calm him down. Neither of them know what they’re doing or how to help, both in that moment and in their lives overall as they try to cope with their present situation. It’s a scene full of pure warmth and love as Lee refuses to leave Patrick’s bedroom until he’s fallen asleep.

Becoming more involved in Patrick’s life, despite being the result of another tragic setback in both of their lives with the death of Joe, presents an opportunity for change for Lee. A second chance to start again, to bring himself out of his stagnant state, and reconnect with his nephew and play an important role in his life. It may not be quite how his brother wanted, but Lee finds a way to make the situation work for both of them in their damaged states. Their relationship is portrayed with excellent complexity, as are all the relationships in the film: Patrick’s reunion with his estranged, recovering alcoholic mother and Lee’s uncomfortable encounters with Randi. Both Affleck and Hedges give wonderful performances, perfectly balancing emotion, restrained yet raw, and rising star Hedges is certainly on to big things. ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is a profoundly moving film, an insightful character study, and a tale of regret, grief and love, with just enough hope injected into the ending.

Watch the trailer below:

‘Manchester by the Sea’ is currently playing in cinemas across the UK.