TL;DR – Manchester by the Sea is a film about mess, our lives are messy, death is messy, life is messy, but in many respects this film is messy
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
To be honest straight out of the gate Manchester by the Sea is one of the more difficult films I have ever reviewed because there are some truly amazing moments and performances but it also is quite problematic in other regards, so even though I have given it a score I have gone back and forth on just where it sits. Now as well as this when putting together this review I found out I saw a cut-down version of the movie, so maybe some of the criticism that I have were explained away in the cut footage, I don’t know, but it the end I can only review what is in front of me. Before we delve into the review proper, because of the structure of the film and the nature of it being a snapshot of a family’s life, it is difficult to talk about the story without hitting [SPOILERS], so just a warning moving forward that we will be talking about the story in its entirety.
Manchester by the Sea is the story of the Chandler family, it is a story of grief and loss, happiness and joy, and a case study in how lives are always messy. We open with Lee (Casey Affleck) who works as a handyman for a number of apartment buildings in the north of Boston when he receives a phone call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack. As Lee rushes to Manchester-by-the-Sea to see his brother and let his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) know of the tragedy, we slowly start to unravel the lives of the Chandler family and it is not an uplifting story for anyone bar George, good old George (C.J. Wilson). Manchester by the Sea is a movie where the story is told as much through flashbacks as it is what is happening in the present, which can be difficult to follow at the start because you don’t really know the relationships between everyone, but it allows the film’s narrative to slowly reveal itself.
As I said at the start Manchester by the Sea is a film of great highs and lows, and one of the highs has to be the cast’s performances. Casey Affleck gives a wide-ranging performance from happy, to detached, to rage, and indeed it is this range that is the first hint that there something much worse lurking in his past. There is that flashback when he came home from a fishing trip and he is talking to his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) which unlike so many perfect Hollywood moments felt like a real interaction between a married couple, and you don’t realise how rare this is until you see a fantastic example of it. Also, it was clear that Casey Affleck earned his Oscar nomination from that scene in the police station alone. Another standout has to be Lucas Hedges performance as Patrick because once again there is a lot of depth to his character. Patrick has lived most of his life with the knowledge that his father is dying and that the next attack could be his last. Because of this and also his age, he plays the tough guy, like nothing can break him until one little thing starts to worm its way into his life, his dad is sitting in a freezer waiting for winter to be over, as this slowly gnaws away at him till he breaks, it was an amazing performance and a testament to a great future in movies.
As well as the performances Manchester by the Sea excels in a number of other facets. The framing and cinematography make the most of the wonderful locations, there is a stark almost bleak beauty to Manchester-by-the-Sea and the surrounding areas during winter that the film captures perfectly. It also deals with a lot of the mess that Movies and TV skip over, you usually cut from the hospital to the funeral, but life is not like that, life is organising how to get the body to a funeral home. Another really good thing was the use of music, Manchester by the Sea knew when you only needed music and the dialogue and sound effects were suppressed, but also when you needed the music out of the way to let the audience focus on the dialogue and action, it was a very subtle touch.
Now while Manchester by the Sea has a lot of highs it also has a lot of lows, which is one of the things that makes it so heard to review. Now to talk about some of Manchester by the Sea’s problems we relly need to discuss the ending, so really spoilers in this next paragraph. The first big issue us with the structure of the story, Manchester by the Sea does not really follow the standard three act structure, instead there is a slow build, a lot of stuff happens and then the film kind of just ends without a strong resolution. Now part of this might just be that I am use to the standard three act structure and like orchestra use to playing 4/4 who suddenly gets a piece in 6/8 it just feels off no matter how good it is. However, this being said it did feel like it was missing something at the end before it cut to black, it was also filled with these odd moments like attacking the drummer that lacked context and didn’t go anywhere. Another big issue, well at least for me, is the depiction of women in Manchester by the Sea, which I found to be really problematic. Now part of this is probably that most of the film is from the perspective Lee and Patrick and to a lesser extent Joe, so most of the female characters are reacting to them rather than acting on their own accord. But more than that, take Patrick’s mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) who is shown to be an unfit mother because she drinks, but then Joe is also shown to be drinking until the early hours of the morning possibly partaking in cocaine and then driving home under the influence, but he is a fit parent. This is compounded when we find she has gotten her life together, but then she is just living under the control of another man Jeffery (Matthew Broderick). We also see that with Randi whose role is mostly to make Lee’s life difficult, at the start of the film she is the buzzkill to everyone’s fun, at the end she is the emotional sledgehammer to Lee’s mental health. This really detracted from the film for me.
In the end, look as long as you don’t mind a high F quota, I do recommend Manchester by the Sea, when it hits you in the feels it hits you hard, and it is full of memorable performances. It is just that with those highs came a lot of lows for me, and I think they did take away from my engagement with Manchester by the Sea.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Kenneth Lonergan
Written by – Kenneth Lonergan
Music by – Lesley Barber
Cinematography by – Jody Lee Lipes
Starring – Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Gretchen Mol & Matthew Broderick
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; NZ: R; UK: 15; USA: R