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Manchester by the Sea | Review

The Fire Last Time: Lonergan’s Austere Portrait of Razed Emotions in Chilly New England

Kenneth Lonergan Manchester by the SeaKenneth Lonergan musters yet another masterful portrait of pervasive trauma with his third feature, Manchester by the Sea, a muted New England melodrama which feels like a brotherly companion piece to the director’s feature debut sixteen years prior, You Can Count on Me (2000). Considering the dramatic development of his sophomore feature, the superb Margaret (which filmed in 2005, and after several publicized edits, at last received a release in 2011), we should be thankful his latest hasn’t been subjected to similar agitation. Commanded by a profound, melancholy performance from Casey Affleck, this latest is a subdued, languorous drama exploring the troubled future of a Boston family when a recent death in the family causes floundering skeletons to surface. Though this isn’t nearly as emotionally thorough or ambitiously monumental as either of the auteur’s first two titles, it is certainly a handsome, picturesque melodrama.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) works as a Boston handyman, predisposed to rudely brushing off customers and engaging in fisticuffs at the local dive bar. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies from congestive heart failure, Lee is forced to return to his hometown and deal with the aftermath, where he learns he is now responsible for his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) since Joe’s ex-wife (Gretchen Mol) is nowhere to be found. Memories of Lee’s recent tragic past, involving his own ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) begins to cloud his decisions for the immediate future.

As its title promises, the coastal New England town features as a significant character. DP Jody Lee Lipes (Afterschool; Martha Marcy May Marlene) provides a multitude of forlorn landscape shots, often set to mournful snips of classical music, which eventually starts to stretch the running time a bit in the film’s more belabored second half. As Lee’s memories are awakened and we learn bits and pieces of the trauma which drove him away from his hometown, Lonergan projects an authentic portrait of despair, culminating in two carefully wrought sequences exploring the direct aftermath.

But once we’re tipped completely into the present situation of uncle and son clamoring for control of an awkward situation, Manchester by the Sea settles into a quiet stretch of banality. Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom) proves to be adept as a relentlessly self-absorbed teenager, intensely focused on conquests involving the opposite sex, but the character’s give and take with Affleck’s emotionally paralyzed uncle begins to feel perilously repetitive. A tangent involving recovering addict Gretchen Mol and her religious savior/second husband Matthew Broderick feels a bit too hastily conceived to help matters. Eventually, Lonergan makes a magnificent break from this stupor with a superb shared moment between Michelle Williams and Affleck, performed with galvanizing emotional pitch.

Though it sometimes settles into a monotonous dead zone, Manchester by the Sea is an exacting familial drama, rigidly held in place by a commendable supporting cast and what stands as Casey Affleck’s most generous performance to date.

Reviewed on January 23rd at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Programme. 135 Min.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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