Film, Reviews, Screen

Manchester by the Sea movie review – an American masterpiece

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Is a flashback, like a voice-over narration, a powerful device too often over-used and under-thought? We’ve recently seen the technique put to highly memorable effect in the science fiction film Arrival. In that film, director Denis Villeneuve played with what a flashback (or ‘switchback’ as they were once known) might mean in a universe where time is a palindrome: the same forwards and backwards.

And again we see terrific use of flashbacks in writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s exquisitely told drama Manchester by the Sea. The filmmaker provides several notable examples, each fitted into the narrative in an unprepossessing way designed to make one lost in the flow of things – the viewer is moved as much emotionally as they are to any point on a timeline.

In one, the film’s bummed-out protagonist, Boston janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is listening to the executor of the will of his deceased brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). The executor explains it was Joe’s hope that in the event of his death (which was not entirely unexpected – he had a congenital heart disease) Lee would move back to Manchester, the seaside town he previously called home, and adopt Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Casey Affleck’s career-best, Oscar-nominated performance is both heart-wrenchingly raw and masterfully controlled.

At this point we still don’t know why Lee is such a misery guts. Or why he exhibits extremely masochistic behaviour, visiting bars and picking fights with men – with the expectation he will get beaten and thus feel something. Then we find out. The executor says “no-one has gone through what you have” (or something very
close to that) and Lonergan unfurls a few coils in time to show us what happened.

It would constitute a spoiler to divulge any more about it, suffice to say: yeah, fair enough, that’d make anyone want to skip town. It is a masterfully written and directed moment. If you call it subtle you must also call it shattering, and vice versa.

Lee is a stoic, cut-to-the-chase kind of guy, the eternal man of few words. The aforementioned flashback is not about recalling events of the past but a representation of something he is incapable of putting into words; it works in lieu of dialogue. Lonergan (a playwright) is acutely aware that emotions are tied to places, and places are tied to stories.


This is why, when Lee attends a hospital and is told the bad news about his brother, the location remains the same while the hands on the clock change. In one timeline Joe is alive (receiving a diagnosis) and in the other he is dead. It is also the film begins with a happy memory – Joe, Lee and Patrick on Joe’s fishing boat
– but the camera keeps its distance, defining this key time as much by aesthetic (the similar shades of blue shared by water and sky; the smallness of humans) as the contents of what was said.

Manchester by the Sea is a perfect drama.

Manchester by the Sea is one of two American masterpieces currently playing in Australian cinemas, arriving just a couple of weeks after Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Both films are vital reflections on masculinity, use water as a central motif, have reserved, eminently huggable protagonists and are about characters who have a very strong relationship with the past.

And the acting, man, the acting. The performances are magnificent in Moonlight, though its triptych format means no single cast member can really steal the show (but Naomie Harris, playing the protagonist’s mother, comes close).

That is not the case in Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck’s career-best, Oscar-nominated performance (he’s the hands-down favourite) is both heart-wrenchingly raw and masterfully controlled. Every face muscle, every blood vessel falls into line. Surely we all see somebody we know in Lee; someone who always makes us work harder in conversation.

In real-life we wouldn’t know what monsters haunted Lee; he couldn’t explain them if he tried. Perhaps the greatest gift of cinema is perspective. I suppose the same can be said of other mediums, but the visual and voyeuristic nature of film gives it great verisimilitude.

Brilliant directors such as Lonergan (who has made two previous films: Margaret and You Can Count on Me) understand that scene-by-scene realism is one thing, emotional truth quite another. In that sense Manchester by the Sea is a perfect drama. You get lost in the naturalness of it, and lost in the meaning.

15 responses to “Manchester by the Sea movie review – an American masterpiece

  1. Great movie and a perfect exposition of John Donne’s line “No man is an island”. painful in parts, funnier than it had any right to be and very zen. What Hollywood should aspire to more often.

  2. I agree, this is a superb film – without doubt, it will be in my top five for 2017. Affleck is mesmerising – and the rest of the cast don’t put a foot wrong. One the rare films I’ve needed to watch twice. Five stars from me!

  3. It does sound like a terrific movie but I hope whatever dialogue Casey Affleck does have is able to be deciphered. The last movie I saw him in I could barely understand him. This happens in so many American movies especially with the men although the women’s voices are too often ear-shattering.

  4. Thanks, Luke: Just a week or so ago I felt that “Lion” was the best movie of the year – but fickle me – or – five-star again – Manchester-by-the-Sea is as Luke B reviews – a masterpiece. I have written to a number of friends here and abroad that its under-statedness (is that a real word?) is brilliant – the in-articulateness of people in real life grief and trauma – the use of flash-backs feeds the viewer some guidance on the back-story – and is brilliant in the way (most un-US movie-like) it permits the viewer to arrive at understanding from the clues – rather than bludgeoning us with a laid out full-deck of point-by-point details – treating the viewer as intelligent. I loved and was moved by this story – and felt that every character was fantastic – including the nephew – his lines – and the way he acted it. Bravo Casey AFFLECK!

  5. It was a terribly depressing story that delivers it’s message to a generation with no empathy in the way of a mallet the size of a truck.
    I despise this movie.

  6. I thought the film was very good….which males is shortcomings very frustrating. The music was overdone and distracting and the female characters were unrealistic. The teenage girls who are okay with being cheated on and the wife who seeks forgiveness for what SHE said to HIM in such circumstances??? Male delusions, my friends

    1. Richard
      Thank you very much for highlighting this amazing history of Casey Affleck. As well as Phoenix, but that’s for another day. Afflecks behavior towards these two women has genuinely been abominable. The Hungry Beast article correctly points out that the assaults are bad enough, but the cover ups are just as bad if not worse. As an activist and survivor of major trauma from childhood sexual assaults, I have found that the perpetrators continue to act out their sordid fantasies on their victims primarily because the reactions of those who could have stopped them were never severe and or strong enough. If these two women in the Hungry Beast article are only have telling the truth, then Affleck should have gone to jail if not been exposed graphically by the media for the vicious disgusting pig of a man that he must surely be. In light of this information I will NOT be seeing this movie or any that he does in future until there is clear contrition and reversal of his attitude.

  7. Sorry guys, a bleak fictional random collection of snapshots, with little in the way of entertainment. The story could have been anything but this ‘truth’ is much duller than reality. Well acted hut not appealing.

  8. the comment about bleak meandering view of wasted lives in a nation in decline, not a masterpiece but art and the movie reflects the truth of america wasting peoples talents for the benefit of purposeless activities or television violence to captivate people, casey affleck’s personal behavior, off and on the screen, shows the problems of american male psychology that has a hard time adjusting to the world of today without being angry young man syndrome always needing violence-aggro from formulaic class-conflict, which is easily depicted by affleck’s persona and the characters in the film. Engaging with others and having genuine mental health issues is a dillemma of society being thrust upon as being overly aggressive to respond to the pressures of overly demanding and negative situations and unrealistic expecations or psychological characterizations that are not fact-based or truth telling in society. Its perhaps an overlyhyped film given the attention its received, but downtrodden people are part of u.s. society in a massive way and this film lets people know that sacrifices of working people for rich people and trump’s vision for u.s. society is to appeal as much as possible to the mysogyny and confusion and anger of white american men and their relationship to lack of trust in society. Being crapped on, and then used or whatever the favourable term is, shows a lack of compassion in society as defined by the stark class contrasts of the film in which people can never trust each other. Sad film, a classic like Chinatown? Probably not.Truthful? I am not sure. Beautifully shot/scenery? Yes.

  9. I wasn’t so keen. A handful of effective, and affecting scenes, some good acting, but overall a pointless exercise given everyone ends up in the same place that they started. Like “Blue Jasmine” a great performance in search of a story.

  10. It’s a perfectly made film. So very, very sad but it has integrity, authenticity. Not easy to sit through but beautifully made with the actor playing Lee putting in a flawless performance.

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