“I can’t beat it.”
Few films understand the language of grief as well as Manchester by the Sea. Here, Kenneth Lonergan has crafted his finest film to date — a heartbreaking slice-of-life tale about aftermaths and remembrances. Lonergan finds the perfect cinematic poetry to convey the crushing weight, as well as the occasionally comical absurdity, of death and grieving.
Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a socially inept, short-tempered man with a thousand-yard-stare. He drinks too much, people whisper about him when he walks by, and he’s prone to starting brutal bar fights. He spends his days in a tiny one-room basement apartment, acting as a janitor and handyman for a series of apartments. His life, to put it bluntly, seems terrible. And then the rug gets pulled out from under him some more: his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of congestive heart failure and leaves his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Lee’s care.
With that set-up in mind, you may have preconceived notions of where this story will go: How Lee will be a reluctant guardian who learns to be a good father to his nephew; how the nephew Patrick will be resentful or snotty towards his new guardian but learn to accept and love him; how everything will fit nicely into an already-established format. But you’re wrong. Manchester by the Sea charts its own surprising, revealing course.
While Chandler’s character Joe is already dead in the first few moments of the film, he appears throughout via flashbacks. These flashbacks are Lonergan’s frankly brilliant way of organically letting his story unfold in increments, never quite tipping his hand before he has to. We learn more about Lee, and about the tragic backstory he has involving his ex-wife Randi (an absolutely transcendent Michelle Williams). This is a film driven by character, and Lonergan has cast his characters well. Chandler, as the deceased Joe, is all brawny warmth, exactly the type of guy you’d want to spend a few hours shooting the shit with. Hedges, as Patrick, is something of a revelation — all cocky bravado and cool charisma, but also a real kid dealing with the death of his father. A scene where he has a particularly unnerving emotional breakdown after some frozen chicken tumbles out of the freezer rings achingly true; it’s exactly the type of absurdist trigger that comes on the heels of grief, and Hedges plays it perfectly.
But this is Affleck’s film through-and-through. The actor has made a name for himself playing twitchy weirdos; outsiders struggling to find a way in. All those past roles seem to have been building toward this. Affleck’s Lee is on the outside, for sure, but he’s not exactly trying to get back in. It’s more like he’s coasting on fumes; drifting through what could barely be classified as an existence. There’s a scene late in the film between Williams and Affleck which may very well be one of the most emotionally effective film scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a devastating, painfully wrought moment acted magnificently by the two performers; it’s also a study in contrasts — with Williams’ Randi pouring her heart out and Affleck’s Lee physically struggling to hold his own feelings back.
I don’t want to give the impression that Manchester by the Sea is a non-stop trip through misery and weeping. There’s a playful side to the film as well, including several laugh-out-loud funny moments that come in like a breath of fresh air to alleviate the sadness. But this can also be a cold film, both in tone and climate. Lonergan meticulously captures the beautiful harshness of New England winter. Often, when characters are silent, we can hear the frigid wind howling outside, and practically feel it biting at our skin.
Manchester by the Sea is a reminder of how powerful and emotionally genuine films can be. It moves at its own languid pace but is never slow; it spends long stretches focused simply on characters talking softly in tight spaces, yet never seems chatty or cinematically flat. If cinema is truly a machine that generates empathy, as a great man once said, then what a fine, damn-near-perfect machine this is. Quite simply, this movie is a miracle.
Note: A version of this review appeared on September 9, 2016