Manchester by the Sea, 2016.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Tate Donovan, C.J Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Josh Hamilton, Anna Baryshnikov, and Matthew Broderick.
An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.
Few writers/directors understand the minutiae of human interaction quite like Kenneth Lonergan. His films tackle grief and loss with a quietly dignified, murmured confidence. Conversations have the feel of intrusion, the audience as a peeping Tom. It’s emotional voyeurism. With Manchester by the Sea, only Lonergan’s third film in 17 years, he’s carved a masterpiece out of broken bodies and tired souls.
Where thematically his films nod towards the melancholy and the tragic, they manifest as subtext buried beneath far broader ideas. The trailer for Manchester, somewhat smartly, totally avoids this subtext in place of the louder, more marketable moments, which in turn results in gob-smacking punches to the gut upon viewing.
We first find Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) occupying a sad, single room apartment in Boston. His days are occupied with shoveling snow, odd jobs clearing blocked toilets, fixing broken pipes for uptight housewives, picking fights whilst drunk in bars. When news of his brother’s passing reaches, he ventures back to his hometown Manchester, a picturesque seaside town over-shadowed by terrible loss. Where anonymity grants peace back in Boston, his arrival back home inspires infamy; he is “the Lee Chandler.”
Unaware of a clause in his brother’s will granting Lee sole custody of nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he finds himself grappling with responsibilities and emotional trauma he would much rather bury.
Running parallel are flashbacks showing a pre-trauma Lee. He lives happily with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three children, he goes boating with brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and a young Patrick, he lives happily. Ever looming is loss, although no one seems too concerned. A sequence showing the diagnosis of Joe’s terminal heart condition is played hysterically broad, placing emphasis on the manic dysfunction of the Chandler clan.
Yet where early on playful, the flashbacks become ever increasingly harsh. A truly distressing moment lays emphasis on Lee’s trauma but Lonergan, in place of broad emotion, plays it with tortuous subtlety.
Affleck looks as if ready to break at any moment. In flashbacks, he exuberates calmness, in real time he walks with a hunch as if trauma literally crippled him. His Lee seems content with self-loathing; getting drunk alone in a bar and throwing a punch gives him an excuse to feel something. It’s a performance for the ages.
Michelle Williams, in a role small yet pivotal, finds herself in what may be the finest scene of 2017 when the year comes to a close. There’s nothing grand about it, simply a conversation between two people broken by shared loss. Randi breaks, she pours her heart out while Lee’s composure shows cracks. It’s a moment of desolate, heart-aching sadness.
Emotional trauma can’t simply be healed or patched over and Lonergan understands this. Lee is broken and will maintain broken, but his narrative arc hints towards something that if you squint hard enough, may resemble calm.
Manchester by the Sea is an agonising exploration of loss at its most afflictive buoyed by quietly mesmeric performances. Few directors understand what it is to be human quite like Kenneth Lonergan. It’s truly stunning, stirring stuff.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★