You know, that’s a hyperbolic first sentence. But it’s true: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival) is gut-wrenching. But not in a way that made me cry. (For the record: I’m a pretty easy cry.) So, I don’t want to oversell (or undersell) this film as some sort of weepy drama piece that will shatter your life for a few hours. Instead, Manchester by the Sea will quietly haunt your life for the next few days.
I write this having seen Manchester by the Sea three days ago and, for the life of me, I can’t stop thinking about it.
The film opens with the death of Joe Chandler (played by Kyle Chandler, and, no, I never really did get used to the fact that they both have the same surname) from a heart condition he’d been battling for years. The family knew his time was short and that he’d lead a normal life until one second he couldn’t anymore.
Casey Affleck (I cannot stress more how outstanding he is in this) plays Lee Chandler, Joe’s younger brother who moves back from Boston to look after Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) while everything is sorted out. It’s complicated because Lucas’ mother (Gretchen Mol) is out of the picture and Lee doesn’t want to stay too long in his hometown, due to a prior event that still haunts him.
When Lee walks around town, he’s known to everyone, but not in a good way. “So, that’s the Lee Chandler,” townsfolk will say when they see him. Lee has a past. He used to be married to Randi (Michelle Williams), but that is long over and has everything to do with the event that happened.
I’m going to write about “the event” without spoiling “the event.” We eventually learn what happens, but its mystery is what keeps an ever-present sense of doom hanging over this story. Lee is prone to violent outbursts from time to time. He’s a man filled with rage, fighting demons he can’t beat. He likes to go to his favorite watering hole, drink himself stupid, then accuse strangers of staring at him before he throws a punch. Lee is a mess. Lee has good reason to be a mess.
The scene in question (which, again, I won’t reveal) is delivered in a horrifying flashback. (There’s a good amount of flashbacks in Manchester by the Sea, which are handled impeccably. This is a great example of a movie avoiding clunky exposition and, instead, just showing us what happened.) A lawyer is reading Joe’s will while Lee stares out a window. This is when we see “the event” in one of the most skillfully edited scenes I’ve ever seen. I usually think about things like editing after I’ve seen the movie, but the editing is so crisp and wonderful and horrifying here that I actually whispered to myself, “Oh my God.”
It made headlines when Amazon bought Manchester by the Sea for $10 million. It’s an odd movie to think about streaming. Before I saw the film, a friend warned me, “Try not to have anything else on your mind. Let it just wash over you.” This is good advice. This is not a short movie, nor is it a quickly paced movie. Manchester by the Sea is a long meditation on medium-sized mistakes that become huge, disastrous, life-changing mistakes. It’s about Lee trying to cope with what happened as a movie creates a sense of dread that it’s not going to happen. It’s a movie about regret and we all have regrets… it’s just a matter of if we let those regrets define us. But, sometimes, we don’t have that choice.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.