When I see one of Kenneth Lonergan’s pictures I’m delivered back to a time in my viewing life when everything was fresh and undiscovered. The lauded playwright-turned-filmmaker has only directed three features, and I consider each one the best picture of its year. I still regard his screen début You Can Count on Me (2000) as the best movie of the Millennium so far. His follow up Margaret (2011) is an even more astonishing accomplishment, though it was hampered by his inability to deliver a cut under the contractually obligated two and a half hours. The legal fights and hostility between filmmaker and studio led to Margaret getting dumped into just two theaters rather than receiving the proper release it deserved. In my review I praise MARGARET as the most insightful movie about adolescence ever made. I also vent my frustration at Lonergan for his obstinacy and failure to properly finish the work that could have been his masterpiece—thereby robbing the world of this amazing film (it’s criminal that so few people have seen Margaret), as well as perhaps future movies that he might not get to make, after the prolonged professional debacle. But my fear that the experience might sour Lonergan on attempting another picture, or that no one would ever back him again if he did, turns out to be unfounded.
The writer/director’s third feature, Manchester by the Sea, possesses all the honesty and compassion that makes Lonergan’s work stand out among other contemporary storytellers of the stage and screen. This uncompromising look into the soul of a man begins in a subdued, workaday manner as it introduces us to its main character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Lee is a janitor with a short fuse, living a threadbare existence in the aftermath of personal tragedies. When he learns of his brother’s hospitalization he must return to where he grew up, the small Massachusetts fishing town that gives the movie its name. There, Lee connects with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Most of the picture revolves around their interactions, with flashbacks to Lee’s past with his late brother (Kyle Chandler) and ex-wife (Michelle Williams).
Lonergan doesn’t make easy movies. Manchester by the Sea unfolds with no delineation between past and present and none of the unexpected twists and turns that modern trends in film and TV have conditioned audiences to expect. Lonergan reveals his simple narratives through scenes of beautifully constructed dialogue and observed behavior, which unlock deep, complex truths about the human condition. At its core, Manchester by the Sea falls into a perennial subgenre, particularly well suited to cinema—the grief/loss drama. With actors delivering understated performances in mundane yet charged situations, films of this type provide a wide range of possibilities for exploring powerful internal conflicts. Much of the action in this movie centers on simply trying to get through daily routines. It explores how life goes on even when you try to shut yourself down. Perhaps better than any other picture I’ve seen, this movie exposes the falsehood of the old expression, “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” In truth, most of the terrible things we undergo strengthen not our character but rather the wall we build around ourselves for protection from pain.
Casey Affleck proves himself an ideal choice to embody Lonergan’s signature brand of troubled, disengaged male protagonist. While not an actor of great range, Affleck excels at playing a certain type of withdrawn man of few words. He reveals multifaceted layers of buried emotion and intellect in films like Gone Baby Gone, Out of the Furnace, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In Manchester by the Sea, his Lee Chandler is a man whose numb, affectless demeanor belies a torrent of suppressed feelings raging deep within himself. Lonergan doesn’t give Chandler a classic breakdown scene in which to find catharsis and healing, as traditional movie characters often experience. This is not a story about finding closure; it’s about finding a way to continue to move forward despite the unfixable damage we carry with us.
Yet this is not a bleak, depressing picture. As with all his work, Lonergan’s dry wit provides a lift to the heavy tone while simultaneously grounding the story in the naturalistic details of how and why people use humor in all manner of situations. Much of the comedic moments come between Affleck and Hedges, in one-on-one scenes where Lee must navigate the responsibilities of taking care of his nephew. Hedges delivers a star-making performance as Patrick, a teen who seems oddly resigned and adjusted to the loss of his father. The rest of the cast shines equally bright, especially Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife. The centerpiece of the picture, in which the estranged couple attempts reconciliation, is one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever filmed. It epitomizes Lonergan’s ability to craft heightened theatrical drama that plays as utterly authentic and true to life.
The bucolic setting—a working-class town on New England’s seaside—provides a subtle commentary on how the characters view themselves at various points in their lives. Lee’s perspective of Manchester-by-the-Sea fluctuates between a kind of idyllic heaven and an unlivable hell, but for most of this story he experiences his home town as purgatory. The spiritual aspects of the movie are heightened by the director’s use of Handel’s “Messiah” at several key junctures. The deeply religious oratorio underscores a longing for the comfort that faith can provide, which seems inaccessible to Lee. As with many of Lonergan’s choices, the way he drops out all sound in favor of the operatic music should come off as too heavy handed. It should distance us from the movie rather than pull us in deeper. But everything in this picture works in concert to transport the viewer into the world and the emotional lives of these characters. We leave Manchester by the Sea feeling more attuned to our own joys and sorrows—as if the catharsis not fully possible for the characters is conveyed to us.