“Manchester” Is a Director’s Triumph

Despite Best Actor nod for Affleck, “Manchester By the Sea” is director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie.

By - Feb 2nd, 2017 03:04 pm
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea."

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea.”

“Manchester by the Sea” is being touted as an actors’ movie (particularly one actor, Casey Affleck), as a sad but gripping excursion through a lost soul redeemed by having to care for his nephew, a meaningful and highly rated film about overlooked everyday reclamation.

Missed in that description is that it is really a director’s film — Kenneth Lonergan. It only works so well because he refused to gussy up the story with dramatic flourishes, letting the quiet reality unfold in flashbacks and careful revelations, trusting the audience to do the empathetic work. It is rooted in working class values so we can feel the New England cold, the drudge of snow shoveling, the blocked toilets, the gray highways, the pain of a common hospital ward where sad news is delivered.

He keeps the cast and a fine technical crew completely at the service of the mood and the writer – Lonergan – staying true in story choices and interaction. This invests small variations in character Lee Chandler’s focus that bring him not to redemption but to the hint of changing back into a mensch (the Yiddish word for a good person). In other words, a truly believable reluctant change.

We watch Lee (Affleck), a stoic uninvolved Boston custodian clearly smarter than his circumstances, emptying trash and fixing plumbing in walled off manner, occasionally erupting over beer into fistfights — clearly a lost human being with a dark hidden side.

Then his brother dies and leaves him sole guardian of 16 year old nephew Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges), at which point we get touches of his past life and tragedy that led him to this state of isolation and self-imposed emptiness.

Only in contemplation do we realize his late brother’s motivation (a role of observant watcher played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler, in quite a departure from TV’s “Friday Night Lights”). Only after absorbing Affleck’s haunted eyes and locked off behavior do we comprehend the depth of the family tragedy and self-loathing that have driven him to this stoic façade and his determination to stay there.

The story was apparently suggested to Lonergan in a down period by friend and now an executive producer on the film, Matt Damon, who couldn’t star and suggested Casey Affleck (younger brother of Ben). Damon couldn’t have made a better suggestion because Affleck becomes Lee with his vacant eyes, darting subdued looks and hesitant hand gestures, refusing to break open but clearly tempted to when encountered by his ex-wife (naturalistic fine work by Michelle Williams). He has the stillness, the accent and the man of few words delivery needed for Lee.

We reach the point of understanding a more life-loving Lee in his past, an indulgent belief in life that may have led to his tragedy. We long for a smile to break that sullen face. That elevates our intensity in watching the performance. We are finally satisfied only when Lee is out on his family boat — on the life-enhancing sea, the smooth glass ocean off of Manchester that fulfills the story’s contrast with Lee’s emptiness.

Never overlook how carefully director Lonergan (also Oscar nominated) has modulated these performances, never stop appreciating what he left on the cutting from floor. The observation of people and of landscapes is expertly achieved by cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes and delicate film cutting from Jennifer Lane (neither are Oscar nominated).

The film has also earned a supporting actor nomination for Lucas Hedges, who at age 20 perfectly captures the insolence, rebellion and budding sorrow of nephew Patrick. I think the votes in that category are going to lean to the screen magnetism of Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight” or rising star Dev Patel of “Lion.” But the largely unknown Hedges deserves to be in such company.

Affleck is also nominated for best actor, amid some controversy because of past sexual allegations that had been settled out of court. Despite media comparisons to Cosby and Trump, it should be his performance that matters not speculation, and he has been reputable in the past. But I’m not sure this isn’t a perfectly orchestrated one-off. I prefer the proven gifts and realizations of Denzel Washington in “Fences.”

Other recent film reviews include “La La Land,” “Moonlight” and “Lion,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Jackie” and “Hidden Figures.”

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

3 thoughts on “Movies: “Manchester” Is a Director’s Triumph”

  1. Virginia Small says:

    I agree with Dom that this is a masterpiece of directing (and writing) by Lonergan. It has the same restraint and poignant but underplayed humanity of “You Can Count on Me” Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, which Lonergan did back in 2000. That was also a complex family/relationship drama dealing with grief and other challenges.

    There’s subtle humor in both films that takes the edge off. I missed Lonergan’s only other film “Margaret” (he’s also written a lot of plays) but I hear it’s worth tracking down.

  2. Daniel says:

    Magnificent film. I too love the film “You Can Count on Me.” There is a minimalism that speaks so well to both stories. Affleck deserves a lot of credit for his performance. I haven’t seen La La Land but believe it will probably outshine this movie, at least awards-wise. This film and Fences are perhaps the two finest of the year. The acting in Fences is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    This isn’t nearly as good as Moonlight and is one of 2016’s more overrated films. It’s misery porn, another story about a sad white guy and his troubles. If you haven’t seen Moonlight, see it. So much better than Manchester.

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