Manchester By The Sea, very simply, follows an uncle who, following the death of his brother, is placed as his teenage nephew's guardian. Fighting his own personal battles and haunted by his demons, he must adapt to his new role in this profound tale of tragedy, loss and regret. Affleck, Williams, Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges star in the critically-acclaimed picture that will do nothing but advance their route to more prominent and flashy Hollywood roles, should they wish to follow that path. Despite the relative simplicity of the story, it juggles a multitude of complex themes that could very easily come crashing in the wrong hands; Lonergan, on only his third feature film, controls it all perfectly from the director's chair.
Quiet and thoughtful, Manchester By The Sea engages from the very first scene with an icy sophistication and disconcerting quality that feels totally alluring to audiences. It's careful and considered, telling a simple story in an astounding way. It's themes of death, regret and loss are mixed with an unusual dark humour that ensures the film never slips into completely depressing territory, preventing viewers from feeling as if they are imposing on these characters during their time of grief; the humour is so important here and is nailed pretty much constantly, scoring everything from chuckles to belly laughs across the board. It's thanks to Lonergan's script that such a fine balance has been achieved between these two opposing tones. He can also be thanked for his work behind the camera; from sweeping shots of the ocean to intimate moments homing in on a sole characters' smallest of expressions, it is textured piece of directing and filmmaking captured wonderfully by Lonergan. His use of flashbacks enables the film to unfold as a slow burner, drip feeding information and revelations that, although arguably foreseeable, is executed in a way that still shocks and breaks us despite our suspicion, demonstrating Lonergan's firm grip on this film. That one scene in particular is unbelievably powerful and profound, with the subtle and elusive hints in the lead up to the reveal never hampering its impact.
A notably small cast streamlines the film and achieves absolute wonders here, with each and every actor feeling essential to the story; no matter how large their role is, they are so richly developed on paper and on screen. Affleck, leading from the front, plays a highly-strung janitor simply existing on the outside and struggling to come to terms with his fateful actions. His performance is nuanced but powerful, playing Lee Chandler, a man riddled with such rage tightly restrained - he is never tempted to push too far into Oscar-bait material and maintains a cold and almost disconnected persona throughout, even in the moments in which he is humanised a little further with each flashback and character beat opposite his teenage nephew. Speaking of which, Lucas Hedges' Patrick is a revelation in the film; his character is never what one expects and he surprises constantly with an unexpected confidence to his character that avoids many of the expectations and cliches of a character like his. Michelle Williams makes only a few appearances at irregular stages throughout the film but her presence is felt in every single moment she gets, with a commanding performance that manages to break our hearts over and over again. As a character hurt just as intensely as Lee, it's an entirely opposing depiction of the pain that still feels grounded and realistic and equally a heart-wrenching to watch. It speaks volumes that what must amount to less than five minutes of screen time will probably earn her an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress but her turn here is so strong that you have no qualms about her inclusion in the line up. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes guarantees that the film is a visual marvel and music from a Lesley Barber ensures that the right moments are either subtle or emphasised, cohesively working in unity with the actors and script at every turn.
Manchester clocks in at 137 minutes and while you are never wishing the film hurries by, you cannot help but feel a little lost by the time it ends, with the conclusion seemingly coming from nowhere and wrapping up rather speedily - in fact, its the quickest pace the narrative moves at. As with Martin Scorsese's Silence, the film doesn't move you quite as much as you expect on first viewing, but creates a response that appears to be far more emotionally-charged when looking at the film on reflection and, potentially, (and I will get back to you on this) on further viewings. On one hand, you wish the film to cover more narrative ground than it actually operates on but not to the degree that it surrenders some of the fantastic character work on offer.
Manchester By The Sea's key success is in its portrayal of humanity and grief, with the film never afraid to linger on characters, draw out moments to uncomfortable lengths and show these troubled emotions in their rawest form. As with this year's A Monster Calls, the film deals with such difficult themes in a truly exquisitely way, with a real beauty evident in this simple story of loss, regret and damage, all of which is tremendously brought together by Lonergan's writing and directing. Of course, Casey Affleck seems to be unstoppable in the chase for the Best Actor Oscar next month and you can totally see why, with such a controlled and steady performance of a greatly damaged man note perfect, with Michelle Williams worthy of her attention too. Manchester By The Sea is a devastating but rather special film that will stick with you long after you leave the cinema and will rightly hold a special place in your heart this Oscar season and beyond.
Highlight: The beautiful way it explores such difficult themes. One moment, in which Lee reaches breaking point during a flashback will stay with me forever.