Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
Runtime: 137 Minutes
Director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t make films very often, but whenever he does they arrive as a remarkable feat of compelling, complex and unreservedly human drama centred around the fallout of tragedy. Unlike his last film, the sprawling dense and operatic Margaret, Manchester by the Sea is a far more sombre and restrained picture that puts itself in a far more difficult position; the result of its toils manifesting as one of the most affecting depictions of bereavement ever put to screen.
We see the story from the perspective of the middle-aged Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). He’s a man trapped in a perpetual state of emotional purgatory until the untimely death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), forces him to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea. Spoken of in sombre terms around town, eerily referred to by many as the Lee Chandler, the immediate impression is given that his exile has been self-imposed due to some unspoken incident.
The full extent of his back-story unfolds slowly over flashbacks which reveal his once happy life with his family and friends. Shot with an airy realism by Jody Lee Lipes, wrapped in the warmth of comforting accents and worn-in clothing that is absent from the harsh winter scenery of the film’s contemporary setting - that is until we discover the true circumstances of his ostracism from his old life.
To say more concerning these revelations would do a great disservice to the manner in which Lonergan presents them, but the nature of which is revealed to us in an utterly harrowing sequence. So unforeseeable in tragedy and emotionally devastating in consequence, to such a measure that it endows the film with a totally new sense of purpose and understanding. No wonder a man like Lee would run so far from the site of such heartbreak.
Grief is a presence that soaks the entire film, a sorrowful sensation that everything should be okay, but it isn’t. Accompanied at all times by Lesley Barber's prodigious chorale score, it manifests in ways baffling to comprehend for different people. Lee retreats into his now familiar state of detachment that has held onto him for so long, but his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) seems to be able to continue through his daily practices in a fairly ordinary manner, his process of grief spilling out in moments of strain. Lee is granted custody of Patrick, and a new dynamic begins to flourish as this odd couple pairing builds the backbone of the films dramatic conflict.
Lee wants desperately to leave his unrelenting trauma behind in Manchester, as well as avoiding confrontation with his former love, Randi (Michelle Williams), but risks alienating his only true family in the process. The dissonance this causes between to two elevates the gloom with moments of routine comedy and quick-witted backtalk courtesy of Lonergan’s magnificent screenplay, which keeps the film surprisingly funny in moments of black comedy as Lee struggles to keep up with youthful absurdities due to his inability to register emotions properly. The dialogue and performances are so natural together that these feel less like characters than they do actual people being photographed in their most intimate moments.
The numerous performances are almost too great in quantity to count. Casey Affleck has shown so much promise and definition in past productions, and here he gives a career-defining turn that is likely to go down as one of the decades greatest performances. He encapsulates a spectrum of emotion, in the past a roughhousing and rowdy joy, now a restrained and overwhelmed figure of sadness and morose who feels as authentic as any real casualty of circumstance. His rapport with the rest of the unanimously excellent cast leaves dazzling chemistry on show. Kyle Chandler brings a great deal of playful tenderness to his brief time as Joe, while Lucas Hedges is phenomenally good-humoured and enigmatic as Patrick. Michelle Williams’ Randi stands as more of a supporting role, but Williams' performance is staggering, and her significant role in the story takes a hefty emotional toll in a shattering confrontation with Lee, as they comprehend that reconciliation may be too far from their grasp to heal their broken hearts.
Manchester by the Sea is Kenneth Lonergan’s greatest work to date, an understated masterpiece; a depiction of grief that doesn’t offer any easy solutions, that shows life and relationships in all its untidy forms, but somehow feels at peace with the hands that its characters are eventually dealt. The past isn’t something we can forget, but we carry around with us every second of our lives. We live with the consequences of our own actions, and they shape the people that we will become - for better or for worse.