Manchester by the Sea
Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan | 135 min
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Bostonian of few words, and seemingly few feelings, until he has a drink, that is, and takes a swing at guys in bars. When his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies unexpectedly, he leaves behind a 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Though Lee never knew it, Joe wrote in his will that Lee was to be the trustee for the boy, which forces Lee to be a paternal figure to his nephew back in his hometown of Manchester, a New England hamlet holding a host of bad memories and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams).
Lonergan’s film is paced similarly to his last, the troubled production Margaret, a loping, melancholy brew of pathos spiked with a little comedy and awkwardness. His gift is with words and characters, not a surprise for a filmmaker whose roots are in playwriting. Here he moves deftly from the present to brief, telling flashbacks, which provide important information on where Lee is now.
But Manchester by the Sea feels easily 30 minutes too long. It’s the kind of picture I kept waiting to love, to be enveloped by, and about 90 minutes in realized it wasn’t going to happen. And it’s not because there aren’t things about it that work—Affleck is especially good as a guy who has swallowed a massive load of guilt and it’s stunted his emotional growth. He wrestles with an innate impatience, especially in the reflection of his character he sees in his teenage charge. The spiky moments of humour—as with a couple of scenes of Patrick’s rock band, Stentorian, and the abuse of their drummer—are terrific. Late in the running he and Michelle Williams have a wrenching scene where she tries to apologize to him for the past—both of the actors are powerfully good. Hedges, as Patrick, gets to go toe-to-toe with his screen uncle who seems to be just barely holding it together.
But Lonergan the director makes choices that don’t benefit Lonergan the writer, such as selecting Handel to score some of the more emotional moments in slo-mo. Instead of drawing us in, the orchestral pieces feel weirdly ironic, a layer of glaze on gritty drama that doesn’t need the support. These wisps of self-consciousness make it harder to stay emotionally invested. The more unvarnished this material is, the stronger it is.
But mostly it’s just a meandering tale of memorable characters that can’t quite sustain its running time. This could’ve been a crisp, moving, and regularly funny story at an hour and 45 minutes, much like Lonergan’s first feature in 2000, You Can Count On Me. The pieces for that are all here, but fewer of them would have been better.