American dramatist Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature, after his career has been punishingly stalled by the ill-fated MARGARET (2011), made in 2005 as a much-anticipated follow-up to his sterling debut YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000), then embroiled in the lawsuit purgatory with the film’s producers and only would be permitted for a limited release 6 years after, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA impacts as a resounding comeback and it is as good as you can get while toiling away with thumping grief and inconsolable guilt.
Lee Chandler (Affleck), a building janitor in Boston, he is the dour and withdrawn everyman type who distances himself from rest of the world and occasionally courts unwarranted bar brawl to unleash the smothering anger, so routinely the film will slowly mine into his profoundly buried tale-of-woe which would explain how he has fetched up to the current walking-dead state, and in this case, it is a helluva calamity, the most heart-rending accident could ever happen to a parent, and he has no one but himself to answer for. Receiving the news that his brother Joe (Chandler) died in a sudden heart attack, brings Lee back to his hometown, the titular Manchester-by-the-Sea where flashback adroitly interleaves into the narrative to refresh Lee’s memory (edited with pellucid correlations with what he experiences now) where the concealed secret incubates, and would eventually unfolds in the murky, snow night accompanied by Tomaso Albinoni and Remo Giazotto’s ADAGIO IN G MINOR, a sublime sequence transmits a synesthetic frisson which can knock dead its armchair viewers.
In Joe’s will, he names Lee to be the guardian of his son, the 16-year-old high-school jock Patrick (Hedges), which takes Lee aback, a resultant, seemingly life-affirming uncle-nephew bonding process takes its spin sensibly on veracity and wrestles with both Patrick’s suppressed grievance toward his father’s demise (Lee’s heart condition has been long diagnosed, so that it is more like a time-bomb ticking situation), and Lee’s attempt to re-settle in the town on the face of aghast memories and unrelieved penitence, in a pivotal scene, when Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) pleads him for forgiveness and reconciliation after she has been finally capable of moving on to form a new family and embrace a new life, but feels obliged to proffer some extrication for him too, but things are different for the culpable party, not everyone can make peace with the past, however rational it might sound, some pain can be alleviated through time but other stays, thus one must brave himself to live with it for the rest of his life, that is the affirming life-philosophy Lonergan tries to pass on to his audience through studiously delving into the realistic double-bind based on an über-dramatic back-bone, which appears to be an abiding mythos in all his three directorial works to date.
Casey Affleck finds his footing in inhabiting Lee with a simmering intensity underneath his alternatively inscrutable/apathetic/distraught veneer, a performance is so aptly up his alley (a combo of hang-dog frustration and whimpering elocution) and to call it the performance of the year wouldn’t be such a stretch. Michelle Williams, shoe-horned in a peripheral role, but manifests herself as a sniveling and imploring scene-stealer just in one scene, she dangles us with immense curiosity about how her character has gone through the catastrophe, but essentially this film is Lee’s story. Lucas Hedges gets a windfall for being cast in a plum role and nominated for an Oscar, which could be a double-edged sword for the future of his budding career, but as credible and affecting as his portrayal is, the credit should mostly given for Lonergan’s well-rounded script of a rather bratty teenager; also Kyle Chandler is virtually next-in-line for a renaissance on the big screen after starring a string of high-caliber Oscar-baits, from ARGO, ZERO DARK THIRTY (both in 2012), to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), CAROL (2015) and now this, all in small roles but his presence looms larger each time.
The cinematography is bracingly crisp and un-showy, a modest production design and an unobtrusive score borrows many classical pieces, MANCHESTER BY THE CITY is a contemplative continuation in the aftermath of a latter-day Greek tragedy, which elevates Lonergan’s status as one of the most outstanding cinematic story-teller currently from USA soil, and one can bet, co-producer Matt Damon must secretly rue the day that he couldn’t commit himself to Casey's role which would have earned him a coveted Oscar statuette as an actor, and in hindsight, his preference to star in Zhang Yimou’s Chinese monster fantasy THE GREAT WALL (2016) now looks like a dumb decision.