The tagline for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea should be: Just walk in the theater, start crying, and never stop. The writer-director’s latest is a simple, well-told story of a man who cannot shake his past. There isn’t a ton of plot — the movie is easily summarized as: a man returns to his hometown after his brother dies and is confronted by memories of his past. But there is a great script, lovely cinematography, great direction, and a slew of richly-drawn characters, with performances that do them justice.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler (“The Lee Chandler?” people in the town of Manchester by the Sea are always asking before we know why he’s notorious), a man who really does not have it together. He lives alone in a one room basement apartment, does not relate to other people well, and is violent and volatile. Then he gets a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, and he returns to his hometown, Manchester by the Sea, to take care of arrangements and his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. The movie cuts between his present day of funeral arrangements and driving his nephew around, and the events that led him to his present state. In the initially happy memories, he and his brother are both married, and Lee has three children. But in the present, the wives are both gone, and so are Lee’s children. We learn pretty quickly that Joe’s wife was unstable and has been gone for a long time. It takes longer to find out what happened to Lee’s children, and holy fuck, it is a doozy.
The film is anchored by Affleck’s quiet, solid performance as a man who can barely hold it together. It is killing him to be back in this town, but he is trying to do his best to help his nephew and honor his brother’s wishes. Affleck plays Lee with a fairly flat affect, but under this pressure he is constantly simmering, trying desperately not to blow. He has basically zero ability to regulate his emotions, so he just tries to avoid feeling any, but in Manchester by the Sea, that is hard. There are too many reminders and too many pressures. There is his nephew Patrick, with whom he is obviously close, who vacillates between being a typically obnoxious, sex-obsessed teenaged boy and a grief-stricken son who isn’t sure that anyone wants him now that his father is gone. Lucas Hedges plays the typical teenager parts a little bit better, but he carries off the emotional aspects well enough. He also plays teenaged certainty and self-absorption well, which is good, because Patrick has strong opinions on how things are going to happen, all of which require significant contributions from his uncle. And there is also the past and the fact that everyone in town knows it.
Michelle Williams has a small but significant role as Lee’s ex-wife. She’s only in about six or seven scenes by my count, but her final scene is such an emotional gut punch and so perfectly acted that I’ve already heard Oscar buzz. Also excellent is Kyle Chandler, who only appears in flashbacks as the world’s best big brother. Chandler is, as ever, the strong, silent type, but he basically radiates love and kindness, and you feel what his loss means for Lee. There is a scene in which Joe buys Lee furniture, and it is one of the most quietly loving acts of brotherly support I have ever seen, onscreen or in real life. C.J. Wilson turns in a career-best performance as George, Lee’s only ally in town. Wilson is a journeyman actor — most of his IMDb credits are TV guest roles, but he’ll hopefully pick up more work off of this. I could probably call out every single performance here, from Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s mother to the teens who play Patrick's friends to Brian Chamberlain as “1st Detective,” because every single actor in this film is wonderful, and I’m sure that is in large part due to Lonergan’s direction.
Manchester by the Sea is basically the opposite of the comic book movies we love so much. The world isn’t at stake — only one man who isn’t even important except to his brother and nephew. There are no superheroes — no one can save Lee except himself. And there is no hero’s journey — just a man struggling. It is one of the most intensely emotional movies I have seen in a long time, maybe ever, and it is one of the most vital films I saw at Sundance this year, if not the most fun.
Amazon bought the U.S. distribution rights for $10 million and plans to give it a full theatrical release with an awards campaign, so look for it in theaters late this year.