**** out of ****
(for strong language throughout and some sexual content)
Released: November 18, 2016 limited; December 9th & 16th wider
Runtime: 137 minutes
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan
Manchester by the Sea is a small American movie by a renowned American playwright that feels like a Great American Novel.
Rendered with quiet but palpable sorrow, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature film is a portrait of grief, guilt, and loss in a small coastal Massachusetts town. The brunt of this weight is carried by Lee Chandler, a Boston apartment super who must return home to Manchester to care for his nephew following the death of his brother. Lee is played by Casey Affleck in a performance that is absolutely devastating.
Lee is a real piece of work. An anti-social loner, he’s categorically unlikeable. He knows it, and he doesn’t give a damn. Lee’s not looking for conflicts (well, unless he’s drunk), but he won’t hesitate to mouth off with surly condescension the moment someone tries his short patience. Outside of repairs, he’s not equipped to properly deal with anything or anyone, let alone death. Or a teenager.
This is just the surface of what Lee is contending with (and not contending well, mind you). The loss requires him to face tragedies of the past that he’s been running from for years. We come to learn that unhappiness and hopelessness hasn’t always been his norm. Something specific caused it.
And if you don’t deal with grief, then grief’s going to deal with you.
Cutting back and forth between the present (set appropriately in the cold, barren fall and winter) and the past, we see that there’s been better, happier times, and a better, happier Lee. Something terrible, however, has happened between then and now.
For a long while, allusions are made to a previous dire incident but Lonergan’s script keeps it a mystery. We don’t know what it is but we know that the revelation is coming, and it hangs over the film’s entire first hour like a pall. You want to know but you’re also dreading it. Once the truth is finally revealed at the halfway point, it doesn’t fail to ruin you.
Describing this film’s tone certainly doesn’t sound like a selling point, but its deeply sensitive portrayal actually invites us in to its longing for catharsis, not just its immediate and haunting pain. But we can’t avoid the pain or water it down. We have to confront it because Lee must.
Lonergan doesn’t play out or build up to the typical yelling / screaming / fighting melodrama we’re accustomed to (especially at Oscar time). Yes there’s tension here, barbed comments and confrontations (even a heart-breaking panic attack), but they aren’t moments played to an audience; they’re private ones, both tender and sad. Intense ones come by surprise, with no warning, but aren’t overplayed for shock value; instead, they magnify and authenticate the grief.
As a filmmaker, Lonergan explores it all with a pastoral empathy. His compassionate lens becomes ours, and so we don’t feel like we’re invading moments we shouldn’t be watching. Lonergan also has a knack for dry comic humor that works as an appropriate and welcome defense mechanism.
One of Lonergan’s major virtues is patience; the hospital scene following the older brother’s death is a great example. There’s something accurately methodical about it, but not dispassionate. Lee’s not breaking down emotionally, but the patience of the scene (and Affleck’s stellar work of subtext-laden introversion) allows us to grasp that Lee is emotional. He’s just too broken to process things, and so his brain overrides his heart, suppressing it. This is clearly Lee’s dysfunctional modus operandi, with liquor and seclusion (and ad hoc bar room brawling) his vices of choice to appease the existential void.
His nephew Patrick is an interesting counterpoint to Lee, which Lonergan smartly uses for earnest drama. A teenager, Patrick is a guy who’s still at the beginning of his life, and on the verge of actually setting out into it. Lee lives like someone at life’s end, a 40s-ish recluse just biding his time until the inevitable; a living ghost.
Newcomer Lucas Hedges embodies Patrick with an unassuming, appealing naturalism, one motivated by life’s possibilities (even the selfish, carnal ones) following his dad’s death, not depressed by them. Yet angst also metastasizes on occasion, particularly as circumstances may threaten those possibilities. For Hodges, that anguish rises from a real, deep place, not contrived for a close-up.
Matt Damon, one of the film’s producers, was originally slated to play Lee but had to drop out. I’ve no doubt he would’ve brought a worthy interpretation of his own, but my gut tells me that Casey Affleck was the better choice (Fate seems to agree). Affleck has an innate laconic nature that Damon’s charisma does not; it’s much more suited to this character, for this material, and fits what Lonergan’s nuanced ambitions are aiming for.
Despite only being present for a few scenes, Michelle Williams is integral. She is someone from Lee’s past, and events have kept them from sharing a future. Williams imbues this key character, Randi, with potent fragility. She’s stronger and healthier than Lee, but some wounds never stop being raw. Guilt and regret keep them that way. And in one scene in particular, Randi’s overwhelming convulsive emotion may garner Williams an Academy Award (along with Affleck).
No, this doesn’t follow some warm fuzzy arc of Patrick helping Lee to appreciate and love life again; that’d be too easy, and Patrick himself has his own growing up to do. But even as Lee struggles to see a life worth living, these experiences do help him see that there is life for others. A good life. One that he can ruin if he’s not careful.
It’s a small but not unimportant revelation, and a subtle breakthrough that may be unrecognizable even to him. Others don’t necessarily feel this as love from Lee, but it’s the best expression of love he can muster. It’s a muted hope, but a genuine one.
Manchester by the Sea is about the importance of healing from tragedy, and the wake of a tortured life when you don’t. As told by Lonergan, it’s not just powerful moviemaking; it’s heartbreaking prose. Affleck, Williams, and Hedges then elevate it to poetry.