'Manchester by the Sea'
‘Manchester by the Sea’ is unquestionably a good movie, at times even a great one. However, it’s also incredibly difficult to watch. Not that there are any horrible images to send viewers fleeing from their screens or anything like that. This is a character piece in which the emotions can be so raw and the details so painful that they make the film difficult to bear witness to.
There’s comedic relief. Constantly, even. But it barely helps. At nearly two and a half hours, it’s a pretty long sit considering that it’s so rooted in misery. This isn’t a movie for everyone or likely even many people, but for those who can stomach the grief, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (‘You Can Count on Me’, ‘Margaret’) provides yet another masterful exploration of humanity in its most quietly strained places.
Casey Affleck stars as New England burnout Lee Chandler. Early scenes witness him from a place of quiet observation bickering through his janitorial duties, getting in bar fights, and generally just pushing people away. Unexpectedly, his brother dies from a degenerative heart disorder, and Lee is suddenly given guardianship of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), as well as all the messy funeral arrangements. As difficult a time as Lee has ingratiating himself with the world, Patrick fills out a full social life with ease. He’s an athlete, has a (mediocre) band, and juggles two girlfriends. The film milks comedy in their contrasts between the bouts of melancholy. More than that, a tragic backstory hangs over Lee explaining his state. Lonergan cleverly weaves that story through the main one in flashback, exploring how memories can weigh as powerfully as events in the present.
This is not exactly a feel-good fun fest. Nonetheless, the film is filled with humor. A scene in which a woman on a stretcher is in hysterics over what will undoubtedly be the worst moment of her life, yet the paramedics bumble through getting her on the ambulance, is a bit of awkward comedy in the midst of great tragedy. Life throws these people insignificant problems when they’re struggling with the big stuff and vice versa. As small and contained as the drama of ‘Manchester by the Sea’ might be, its themes are grand. It’s a relatable and realistic story, even in its most dramatic moments. The movie never strikes a false note. Lonergan’s themes and statements appear only in context. It can be watched literally or mined for more. Either way, the film will cut deep and leave an impression difficult to shake even days later.
Given Lonergan’s talent for writing such robustly naturalistic dialogue and fumblingly real situations, it’s not too surprising that the performances are uniformly excellent. Casey Affleck plays an absolutely destroyed man, marching with his head perpetually down, locked in sorrow and afraid to look forward. Glimpses of the past and moments of familial connection show the warmth beneath the shell, but he’s too withdrawn to ever pull out. It’s devastating. In the right role, Affleck has the ability to be a perfect mix of character actor and everyman. This is the right role.
Lucas Hedges proves to be an ideal comedic and dramatic sparring partner. His talent is a bit raw, but that suits their dynamic, and when Hedges needs to go for the big scene he never falls short. Kyle Chandler is wonderfully warm and supportive in flashbacks. Michelle Williams has a handful of scenes, but they’re immensely difficult and she tears out hearts with her limited screen time. This could go on for ages. Everyone in the film is wonderfully funny, sad and natural. It’s easy to forget that you’re even watching actors at times.
‘Manchester by the Sea’, and all of Lonergan’s films in general, have a unique tone. They’re about moments so small that they’re easy to miss and moments so big they can never be forgotten. It’s a profoundly human story about the horribly huge things that make lives unbearable and the small connections that make them worth living. The emotional journey has an almost operatic scope, even though most of the story barely leaves the modest houses of a single community.
This is a movie filled with laughs (even though you won’t remember any of them because the tragedy stings so deeply) and is somehow hopeful in its depiction of a hopeless character. This isn’t an easy movie, but it’s a worthy one far richer than many of an infinitely larger scale or with grander drama. Kenneth Lonergan has made one of those movies that burrows in and never leaves you. Impressively, it’s the third time he’s pulled off that trick. Hopefully, it won’t take another five years for the next one.