In typical Kenneth Lonergan fashion, his sensibilities and his abilities to build rich and dynamic characters are evident in his newest feature “Manchester by the Sea” from Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions. Putting together an intimate and dynamite ensemble that includes the talents of Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler is his crowning achievement. His script is smart, with highs that go to a level that one couldn’t imagine. It’s the “in between,” the subtle character building moments that end up leaving you cold. Despite the meticulous creation of Lonergan’s world, the complexity and weight of the decisions being made is ultimately muddled. Like most Lonergan films, there’s a feeling of bloat that is apparent and present throughout.
“Manchester by the Sea” tells the story of Lee Chandler (Affleck), an uncle who is forced to take care of his teenage nephew (Hedges) after the boy’s father (Chandler) dies. Lee must face the idea of raising his nephew, his estranged wife (Williams) and other demons that plague his life.
One thing that no one can deny about Lonergan’s abilities as a director is in the way he chooses to direct his actors. He gets them to believe every ounce of the word that is spoken. The film ultimately just belongs to Academy Award nominee Casey Affleck. Not since his bravura turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” has he internalized such a depth of emotion. There are layers upon layers of emotion going on, which in turn almost keeps him at a distance from the viewer. Every opportunity at the plate, when the script calls for an emotion or reaction, Affleck nails it. It’s a performance that will undoubtedly bring him Oscar attention.
The highlight of the film is the performance from Hedges, a young actor who got his start in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” Hedges magnifies the beauty of his adolescent character, inserting beats of a boy who is covering the pain of losing of his father. Hedges has placed himself in the thick of up-and-coming actors who will be around for some time.
Co-stars Chandler and Williams are most effective in their minimal screen time. Chandler assertively places himself as an anchor to the story, proving his importance to a scene even when he’s quietly in the background. Williams maximizes each instance of her screen time. In as little as six minutes, she sets the screen on fire, almost unrecognizable in the player she portrays. The three-time Oscar nominee may be able to snag a fourth.
“Manchester by the Sea” has elements of smaller scale films like “Jeff Who Lives at Home” or perhaps something Richard Linklater might have tackled in his career. It generates quite a few laughs, likely more than one might expect, but leads to a satisfying yet cold finale. Lonergan’s direction is larger than he’s attempted before but just as understated as his other efforts like “Margaret” and “You Can Count on Me.”
So why, do you ask, could you be left unfulfilled? It’s a film that does everything right. Characters are rich. Performances are sensational and the story is particularly engaging. Where the misstep seems to come, though, is Lonergan’s decision to be mired in the mood. He’s obviously enthralled by the place and culture, but it almost comes off as unnatural. It never quite connects the dots of irony. He also makes one or two head-scratching choices of character actions and beats. Visions of the dead, teen sex, attempted suicide and bodies in a freezer are bit too much of a mixture in one sitting.
Slow motion sequences allow the viewer to relish in what a character is feeling. The comedic moments feel like something that was extracted from an Alexander Payne film, even having Lonergan step into the film as a performer. And the orchestra music is a potent touch to key moments. At this point, the film requires a second viewing, one that you should be more than willing to take despite a 2 hour 15 minute runtime. Perhaps a deeper connection can be found in a later time.
“Manchester by the Sea” is distributed by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions and is scheduled to be released on Nov. 18.