“Manchester by the Sea” takes place in the dead of winter in the small Massachusetts coastal town of the title. This bleak setting and the stark, grim imagery that accompany it set the tone for Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature film, which explores grief and our darkest demons in a way so authentic it can get uncomfortable at times. Yet its that same level of honesty that gives the film an unexpected sense of humor, a kind of tranquility and a quiet hope.
Casey Affleck gives a career-elevating performance as Lee Chandler, a stoic loner living as a residence building janitor in Boston who gets a call that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in critical condition. By the time he gets up north to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Joe has died, leaving Lee to look after his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and bury his brother, all while fending off painful memories of his past that this town evokes.
Although it would seem that “Manchester by the Sea” focuses on the grief at hand — a man mourning his brother and a son mourning his father — the film is actually about other challenges and traumas that Joe’s death brings to the surface for these characters. That’s what makes Lonergan’s story and script so masterful — the present day action is only maybe a quarter of the story. What’s happening beneath the surface in any given scene is everything else.
Lonergan cues us in by splicing in scenes from the past that powerfully inform the present action. As a director and editor, he inserts them rather abruptly and without the sometimes patronizing cues that most filmmakers use to indicate the arrival of a flashback sequence. The transitions are instead rather jarring and require some work on our behalf to sort out, but this echoes the jarring way they interrupt Lee’s consciousness as well. Lonergan puts us completely in sync with Lee, setting up Affleck to have tremendous success.
Affleck does not miss his opportunity. His performance is understated, brooding and cold, punctuated by a few brief gun shots of emotion. This is not a traditional Oscar bait performance, though much of that thanks can again go to Lonergan for writing the audiences into Lee’s skin, affording Affleck a great deal of nuance to work with. It’s also in his character’s nature to suppress emotion, to stay reserved, and watching an actor push back on emotion proves just as powerful as watching it pour out of them.
That’s what makes Michelle Williams’ performance as Lee’s ex-wife such a significant complement. Williams gets pretty minimal screen time, but when she does, it’s in her character’s nature to open up the flood gates. An encounter between the two characters is the emotional climax of the film for this reason.
Other supporting characters also provide alternative perspectives on Lee’s struggles, another part of what makes Lonergan’s script so outstanding. The most complex dynamic is between Lee and Patrick, the teenager who wants more than anything to keep his life intact: being on the hockey team, playing lead guitar in a rock band and having not one, but two girlfriends. He does have his own struggles beyond needing closure from his dad’s death, but it’s how his life is affected by the adults, namely Lee, struggling around him that raise the most interesting points. Hedges provides a lot of comic relief, surprisingly, but he brings a lot of maturity to Patrick that helps elevate his relationship with Lee to something beyond the angsty teen and the bachelor uncle that doesn’t want to have to deal with him.
“Manchester by the Sea” has some powerful messages, messages that can be hard to hear, especially in the form of a movie that’s nearly 140 minutes long and full of nothing but cold, dark imagery to the point that some viewers might walk away with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Yet these are the kind of messages that we need to be reminded of, even at the movies. Grief — overcoming the darkest moments that have defined our lives, is not easy. That honesty makes Lonergan’s film one of the most important, albeit one of the hardest, movies of the year.
Manchester by the Sea
Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler