Among contemporary American filmmakers, there are few whose films are more difficult to review than Kenneth Lonergan's. His films feel so "real" that any critique feels like you're judging someone's life. Indeed, in just his third outing "Manchester by the Sea", Lonergan has once again established himself as one of the foremost storytellers of the unpredictable chaos of life.
"Manchester by the Sea" stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a janitor working in Quincy, Massachusetts. His days are filled with the routine of work, sleep and the occasional drink, all by his lonesome. But on one fateful day, he is forced to reconnect with his family. His older brother Joe has passed away after years of suffering from congestive heart failure. Now, Lee must return to the home he left behind, to provide strength and guidance for his nephew (played by Lucas Hedges). Both men find it hard to overcome the sadness of their loss however, compounded by past traumas that begin to rise to the surface.
Indeed, Lonergan's screenplay unfolds with the emotional force of a Greek tragedy. Though understated, his writing truly captures the overwhelming despair that comes with losing loved ones. With a skillful use of flashbacks as well as great use of music, the film is at once subtle and operatic.
And the heart and soul of those keenly felt emotions lies in the performances. Most notably, the effortless chemistry between Affleck and Hedges conveys their mutual confusion and vulnerability, as well as their inherent love for each other. They will surely be in the mix for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.
But the pain is widespread among the ensemble of characters, especially for Randi Chandler (Michelle Williams). Some may call Williams' performance a "one scene wonder", but there is a wonderful authenticity that runs through her devastating story arc. Her Best Supporting Actress buzz is certainly warranted.
For all the film's sadness, it's a near miracle that the film doesn't feel "heavy", and that's thanks to Lonergan's brilliant direction. The film's naturalism doesn't naturally lend itself to directorial flourishes, and yet there's something indescribably stylish about his control of tone, shot compositions and pacing. And the way he conveys the passage of time and the subtle nuances that exist within daily routines is very Mike Leigh-esque ("Another Year" in particular). The film will be therefore be a major contender for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing.
Crafted with the verisimilitude of a documentarian, Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" is an affecting statement on the crippling nature of grief. As Lee points out in the film, sometimes you just can't beat it. But life goes on somehow. And it's these relatable takeaways that will make this Best Picture contender one of the hardest to beat at the Oscars.