Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Manchester by the Sea (R)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck
December 2016

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Just so there’s no confusion, Manchester By the Sea, the saltwater drama starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler, is most certainly not an upper. The film’s slice-of-life story focuses on Lee Chandler, a low ambition, short fused fixit man who has lost just about everything in life but now, unexpectedly, gains something…his dying brother’s will stipulates that Lee is to raise his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The balance of the movie focuses on Lee’s wildly inconsistent parenting style and his frequently unsuccessful attempts at putting the pieces of his life back together again. From the outset we can tell that something is seriously wrong with Lee—he has near catatonic pauses in the middle of phone conversations, starts bar fights when people look at him the wrong way and can’t engage in small talk with women who are interested in him—but can’t quite put a finger on what plagues this thirty-something New Englander. Another clue that all is not well with Lee is that other denizens of the titular seaside community look at him with askance or outright loathing as he drifts down city streets like a wraith, fitting since he’s little more than the shell of a man. In answer to our silent demands to know what turned this loving husband and father into an emotionless drone, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan slowly unveils the consequential episodes of Lee’s life in a series of flashbacks, which, in time, disclose the horrific event that extracted the majority of his humanity. These glimpses into Lee’s past modulate between the mundane and the traumatic and are successful at garnering spectator sympathy for Lee. Despite his many flaws, Lee is a character we just can’t help but root for; mostly because we know we’d be just as messed up had the same tragic events happened to us. One of the movie’s most memorable moments is the reunion scene with Lee and Randi (Williams): the surprise encounter between the divorced couple is squirm-in-your-seat awkward but contains Oscar-caliber performances from the lead actors. Chandler, who plays Lee’s brother Joe, is influential and memorable in his ancillary role. Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Susan Pourfar, Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick are all superb in their supporting performances. The gorgeous seaboard vistas (filmed at various locations in Massachusetts) provide context, atmosphere and a nearly palpable sense of place. These establishing shots are skillfully woven into the action by Lonergan and his editing team and serve as the unbilled star of the movie. One repetitive, static shot, which captures images of Lee shoveling the same patch of sidewalk on successive days, depicts the harsh conditions and tedious sameness of winters in the Atlantic Northeast. Such creative flourishes are a double-edged sword, however, since they lend the film an art house aesthetic while also detracting from its overall commercial appeal. In the end, Manchester is a movie about personal struggle and the journey to find a measure of sweetness in an otherwise bitter life. The film’s somber mood and slow pacing won’t be a winning combination for many viewers, but those who enjoy rich characterizations and nuanced storytelling will embrace the film. The critical buzz surrounding Manchester substantiates its status as a frontrunner for Best Picture. However, with the recent groundswell of support for the Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance film, Oscar’s top prize might be headed to the other coast…to La La Land.