Manchester by the Sea
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan.
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring: Casey Affleck (Lee Chandler), Michelle Williams (Randi), Kyle Chandler (Joe Chandler), Lucas Hedges (Patrick), Liam McNeill (Josh), C.J. Wilson (George), Heather Burns (Jill), Tate Donovan (Hockey Coach), Matthew Broderick (Rodney), Gretchen Mol (Elise).
Making a film about grief and mourning can be a nearly impossible task, because no matter how you handle it, you run the risk of making a film that is a non-stop parade of misery – and I don’t think that really helps anyone, and doesn’t really capture what it is like to grieve. What is remarkable about Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is that he has avoided that trap altogether. There is no doubt that the film is heartbreaking and sad – it had me in tears at several moments throughout the film – but it’s still a film that is filled with life, and even humor, that is keenly attuned to the different ways people grieve – and move on with their lives in the face of that. It is also an intricately structured film – using flashbacks better than almost any other recent film, and contains one of the best performances you will ever see in a movie by Casey Affleck. It is one of the year’s very best films.
The film opens in Boston, with Lee Chandler (Affleck) working as a handyman to a series of apartment buildings – he’s grumpy and angry, but good at his job. At night he goes to a bar gets drunk, and picks a fight for no reason. He seems utterly and completely alone. Then he gets a phone call – one he’s gotten before. His brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital – again – and he needs to head up to his old hometown of Manchester. Joe has congestive heart failure, and it’s only a matter of time before he dies – they all know it – and this is that time. Joe’s wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol) ran off a few years ago – and now someone has to look after their teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is floored when he realizes that Joe has left him with that role – it’s a role he doesn’t want. We know from the earliest flashbacks that something isn’t quite right here – Lee and Joe used to be best friends, and Lee was playful and friendly with Patrick in ways he definitely isn’t now. (Spoiler Warning - I don’t think what comes next constitutes a huge spoiler – it’s revealed fairly early in the film, but it’s something that personally I did not know heading into the film – and I’m glad I didn’t. You’ve been warned). Those flashbacks also contain scenes of Lee with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) – and their three children, who we haven’t seen or heard mentioned in the present day scenes either. We know from the beginning that something has hurt Lee – we start to realize what that is. End Spoiler Warning.
Manchester By the Sea was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan – and even though he’s only directed three films now, he is one of the best working right now. His debut film, You Can Count on Me (2000) – was a closely observed film about the difficult relationship between adult siblings played beautifully by Laura Linney, and in his breakthrough role, Mark Ruffalo. Years of legal wrangling delayed his next film Margaret for years – shot in 2005, it didn’t get released until 2011 – and to the surprise of many, myself included, it turned out to be even better than You Can Count on Me – a sprawling, messy but brilliantly written, directed and acted film – about a teenage girl (Anna Paquin), who witnesses a bus accident, and the aftermath of that incident became something far greater, and more wide reaching that we expect it to. Even as great as those films are, Manchester By the Sea is even better – a blue collar, domestic drama that treats its characters with respect, and allows them all to become three dimensional characters. Although death, grief and mourning are a constant in the film, Lonergan also finds great humor in some moments as well. Patrick is a kid who has had to deal with his mother’s abandonment, and the constant threat of his dad dying – and his way to deal with everything is natural to a teenager – ignore it, and try to resume normal life. Much humor is wrung from his juggling of multiple girlfriends – the way he tries to come up with a long winded explanation of why one girlfriend is allowed to stay over to his Uncle Lee – who couldn’t care less – or his trying to avoid the mother of his other girlfriend – where he foolishly tries to enlist Lee as his wingman. The dynamic between Patrick and Lee is the heart of the movie – neither of them want to be there, they both know it, and they needle each other in difficult ways. They love each other – but at times, Patrick can’t stand his uncle, and his uncle cannot stand to look at him.
That may be the best part of Affleck’s performance as Lee – the way he seems to be constantly looking away – down and to the side, the way he avoids eye contact with anyone. Everyone in Manchester – a small town after all - knows about him, he knows they know, and yet no one ever brings it up. It’s like Lee is sorry to be there – wherever he is, forcing his presence on everyone else. Affleck has always been a gifted actor – his work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2006) is one of the best performances of the last decade, but he outdoes himself here. It’s a remarkably subtle performance – yes, there are some moments where he gets angry, but they are few and far between. Mostly it’s about body language – the weight pushing down on him. His biggest moment in the film is one of the quietest, when he’s barely able to squeak out the sentence “I can’t beat it” – and is unable to look Patrick in the eye when he says it.
There are other great moments – and performances in the film. Michelle Williams only has a handful of scenes – and for a while, you wonder why Lonergan cast an actress as great as Williams in this role – and then, there comes a scene late in the film and it all becomes clear (I won’t say anything else about that scene, except to note that it is a scene we’ve all been waiting for, and yet, like the rest of the movie is remarkably subtle and underplayed beautifully). A more low-key heartbreaking sequence happens when Patrick’s mother gets back in touch with him – and he goes to see her and her new husband (Matthew Broderick) – and it becomes apparent fairly quickly this isn’t going to be a solution either.
Manchester By the Sea isn’t a movie that wraps everything up in a neat little package either. It is a film that ends on a hopeful note – a note that holds the promise that just maybe, the people in the film are going to be okay after it ends, that they can move towards some sort of way to move to on. But it also understands that they will never truly get over it – they’ll just have to find a way to live with everything that has happened.