Manchester By the Sea Movie Review
*** (three stars)
This is a film that literally grabs you by your emotional heartstrings, and doesn’t really let you go, from beginning to end. It’s a breakthrough film for the star, Casey Affleck, the brother of the much more famous and prolific actor and director, Ben Affleck.
The movie begins with Lee Chandler (played by Affleck) in his occupation as an apt. building handyman. At first, he appears to be affable enough, changing lightbulbs and making light plumbing repairs for the tenants (mostly female), but Chandler quickly reveals himself to be a man with a very short fuse who has little patience for people. He is chastised by his boss, Mr. Emery (played by veteran actor Stephen Henderson, who was terrific in his role as Denzel Washington’s co-worker and confidant in “Fences,” and is the only African American actor cast in MBTS), and promises to be more congenial to the tenants, but it just doesn’t happen; Lee Chandler is a man who is haunted by an unspeakable tragedy that has left him emotionally handicapped; the tragedy is revealed much later in the film.
One day, Lee receives a call from his hometown, Manchester. Lee’s brother, Joe Chandler (played by journey actor Kyle Chandler, who some may remember from the films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Kingdom”), has died after suffering for years from cardiovascular illness. Lee immediately takes leave from his job to return home to deal with his brother’s burial and other affairs. It’s while Lee is back home in Manchester that he finds out that Joe has left instructions with his attorney for Lee to become the guardian of Joe’s teenaged son, Patrick (played well by Lucas Hedges). Lee is, of course, stunned to learn that his brother Joe had intended for Lee to return home to Manchester and to raise Patrick; Lee is simply not up to the task, still haunted by a terrible tragedy that occurred many years ago when Lee was married to his sweetheart Randi (played by Michelle Williams, who does a terrific job in a small role; she steals the few scenes we see her in, and you cannot forget her performance in this film).
Randi has now remarried, and appears at Joe’s funeral with her new husband; Randi is visibly pregnant as well. Her meeting up with Lee is awkward, to say the least, as all ties between them have apparently been severed since their divorce, but their initial meeting is cordial between all parties.
Lee has no real idea as to how he is going to carry out Joe’s wishes to raise Patrick, who is quite a handful as a teenager. An average student, a member of his local HS hockey team, and quite a bedroom lothario with the girls as well. Lee tries to make it all work out, being ‘the permissive uncle,’ until it gets to be too much, causing Lee to go into Real Parent Mode. Their relationship develops quickly over a span of about two weeks, and it’s an interesting one to watch. People in town don’t really know what to make of Lee; everyone there knows everyone else, and they are all fully aware of the tragedy which drove Lee away from Manchester, never to return until Joe’s death.
Everyone has pretty much pushed the bad memory of it out of their mind, until Lee returns home. Even so, Lee has avoided staring this tragedy in the face, until he stumbles across his former wife Randi one day in town. Randi is determined to clear the air between her and Lee, and Williams really shines in this scene; it is amazing to watch her handle this heart to heart talk with Lee, with Randi barely maintaining control of herself, the pain of the tragedy they share together still so fresh and raw between them. Williams is simply terrific in this scene, and even though Affleck won the Oscar for best actor in this film, in my opinion she almost blasts him off the screen in this pivotal scene. Lee is also still scarred by the tragedy, and he too is almost overcome with grief and pain, but it never reaches the level portrayed by Randi. Although remarried, Randi clearly wants to re-establish a connection with Lee, who is simply unable to face the pain head on, as Randi has in this scene between the two. This scene sets the stage for the film’s ending, which I won’t give away here. This is not a film that is going to cause it’s audience to leave the theater with a smile on their faces; there is a lot emotional pain in this film, a tragedy no adult should ever have experience, and the struggle to put the pain and guilt aside and move on with life, as well as one can. This is a film worth seeing if you enjoy watching some great actors giving their best on the screen, even if it makes us a little uncomfortable, while at the same time thanking God that most of us have been spared the pain of loss so great that it would crush most of us. A great script, and a great cast. Movies like this don’t come along too often. Actor Matt Damon, who executive produced this film, was initially offered the title role, but due to scheduling conflicts, was unable to take the role, and offered it to Casey Affleck. It’s amazing how the role of a lifetime falls into a performer’s hands sometimes, and Affleck runs away with it.
Rated R, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. 2 hrs. and 17 minutes. Rough language, sexual themes, but no nudity.