With only three films in the space of sixteen years, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is far from prolific. The respected playwright made a startling debut with intimate family drama You Can Count on Me before seeing his sophomore effort Margaret wind up in development hell, finally finding a release in 2011. His latest, Manchester by the Sea, will ensure that Lonergan won’t have that kind of struggle again: the film is an awards season frontrunner and its devastating, almost operatic exploration of guilt and personal tragedy is masterfully crafted by Lonergan and his terrific cast.
The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, who we first see on a fishing boat joking around with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his young nephew Patrick. This is soon revealed to be a flashback and the warm, jovial vibe of this scene quickly gives way to the cold, self-imposed solitude of Lee’s current situation. He ekes out a living as a handyman in a modest Boston apartment block and lives alone in a dingy basement room. He drinks alone at the bar and can’t even muster enough interest in life to pick up on the advances of a beautiful woman; instead he drinks himself into a stupor and starts a fight with two strangers. Then one day, he receives the news that Joe has died; a degenerative heart condition finally caught up to him.
Joe knew this was coming sooner rather than later so has his affairs in order, essentially leaving everything to Lee: his house, his fishing boat and, most importantly, his now sixteen-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-sea to take care of the funeral and look after Patrick, until something long-term can be worked out. Lonergan brilliantly depicts the awkward banalities of dealing with a loved one’s death, from the strained social interactions to the formalities of paperwork and the logistics of funeral planning. This is all particularly difficult for Lee, who is already so closed-off and troubled that every conversation seems physically painful for him. Patrick deals with things differently. He’s a popular kid at school – he’s on the hockey team, the basketball team and plays in a band – so surrounds himself with friends (and girlfriends) to take his mind off what’s going on. Lonergan manages to find some natural warmth and humour in some of these scenes, crucially piercing the tension and preventing the film from becoming unrelenting in its misery.
Through flashbacks that are seamlessly woven into the present day scenes, Lonergan adds texture to the story, drip-feeding information that provides crucial context to these characters and their relationships. We see Lee in a much happier time, enjoying the day with his nephew, who he now struggles to communicate with. We see Patrick’s alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) who now, for whatever reason, seems to be out of the picture. Most strikingly of all, we see that Lee once had a wife, Randy (Michelle Williams), and three children. It’s startling to see how he once was: an outgoing, gregarious guy with a loving family and a large group of friends who gather in his basement to get drunk and play table tennis. Lonergan juxtaposes these happier scenes against the cold, withdrawn life that Lee now lives, eventually leading up to the personal tragedy that sent Lee on this downward spiral of guilt and self-loathing.
At the centre of all of this is Casey Affleck, who is just exceptional here, looking every bit like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, burdened with so much sadness and anger that every movement or reaction is a strain. It’s a subtle performance but Affleck is heart-breaking in his own quiet, restrained way. He refuses to let it out but we can see there’s a world of hurt beneath his hardened exterior and any time any of it happens to bubble to the surface, it’s incredibly affecting.
Through Lee’s relationship with Patrick, he slowly, reluctantly finds something to care about again and the film shows signs that through all of this pain and anguish, there might be light at the end of the tunnel afterall. If this sounds like the stuff of rote, Hollywood sentimentalism, it’s not; Lonergan is too subtle and skilled a writer for that. Everything here is quiet and restrained, with minimal histrionics and no obvious attempts to tug on the heartstrings. Instead Manchester by the Sea just quietly immerses you in its sadness and melancholy, inviting you into the lives of these deeply damaged people and asking you to share their pain.