“But there are dreams that cannot be, and there are storms we cannot weather”
— Fantine, Les Miserables
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a gut-punch of a film dressed up in the doldrums of everyday life. On the surface, the plot is universal and relatable: a man returns back to his hometown on account of the sudden death of his older brother, and must make the arrangements and look after his nephew in the aftermath. There is surprising wit and humor in the story, heavily sarcastic and ball-busting, and it helps to offset at least some of the sadness. Because a darker and sadder mystery bubbles up through off-hand comments, whispers, and flashbacks. This non-linear storytelling method is used intelligently and sparingly, and suffices to wrench maximal emotional devastation from the audience. The result is a wonderful but sad film that can count itself as one of the best of the year.
Our introduction to this story begins in the past, with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) fishing. Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) owns the boat and is steering up in front, but this doesn’t prevent him from hurling a few jokes about feeding Patrick to the sharks. The scene is simple and short, but the love between these people leaps off the screen. Then, in the present day, Lee is a handyman in Boston, living in a single room and snapping at the tenants. One day while shoveling snow, he gets a call telling him that Joe is back in the hospital with his heart condition. By the time he makes the hour-and-a-half drive to the hospital, Joe has died.
The sequence with Lee at the hospital is brilliant storytelling, and teaches the audience how this particular story is going to be told. First, we begin to understand the wonderful and subtle forms of characterization that Lonergan and his actors are able to provide. We’ve already gotten a few hints that Lee is emotionally stunted and inarticulate, but we see this awkwardness in full bloom at the hospital. It isn’t so much that he is shattered by the news and unaware of what to do; it is more that he is bored of it – too familiar. Then, we learn that Lee is not talking with Joe’s normal doctor, who is off on maternity leave, but some new guy. Here we get our first plot-heavy flashback with the old doctor, where we see the first time that Joe was hospitalized and diagnosed with his heart condition. In the scene, Lee and his father joke around lightly, and this absolutely enrages Elise, Joe’s wife. Obviously, she is no longer in the picture – but we’re not certain why.
The rest of the film deals with the relationship between Lee and Patrick, his nephew. Joe has provided for Patrick in his will, and has named Lee his guardian (without telling him). Lee wants to move Patrick up to Boston, but the sixteen year old obviously wants to stay in his home town. This conflict informs the remainder of the movie, and as more revelations register, we begin to understand Lee’s viewpoint more and more.
Manchester by the Sea is the kind of film that hangs on a single plot element, and I have decided that it is important enough to this mammoth movie that such a detail be left obscure for those interested in experiencing it firsthand. The rest of this review will neglect plot and focus more on acting, directing, and thematic elements, with the promise that all spoilers (which occur about halfway through the film) are omitted. Plus, those who want to learn these details can easily look them up elsewhere. Just believe me when I say that Manchester by the Sea is beautifully plotted, that the flashbacks never feel forced or lazy, and that you’re probably not prepared for its volleys. I know I wasn’t.
Within such a story, Lonergan leans heavily on some serious acting chops; the leads are both astounding and naturalistic, as though plucked from a Massachusetts hamlet. But some of the most emotional scenes come from the supporting cast. Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi, and she has a delicateness about her that is incredibly disarming. Though her screentime is scant, there’s a reasonable chance that she receives a few supporting actor nominations for the power of one particular scene. (Those of you with good memories may recall Viola Davis receiving an Oscar nod for a similar kind of titanic scene in an otherwise small performance in Doubt). In fact, as I am writing this, Williams was just announced as a Golden Globe nominee.
Though this is his first major role, Lucas Hedges has astounding expertise as the young Patrick. A great deal of the comedy comes from Patrick, who has a teenage kind of sardonic wit about him. He is juggling at least two girlfriends, plays on the hockey team, and has a bad garage band, but it is hard not to root for him. I am sure that anyone who has lost a loved one will empathize with Patrick over-reacting to weird details, like when he becomes an emotional wreck after being blind-sided by a freezer full of meat. It is a warming, funny performance, and lends the film the majority of its mirth.
Affleck’s performance is more subdued, but equally powerful. Conflict permeates his performance, as he is a man trying to deal with tragedy on a life-altering scale and basically failing to do so in any meaningful way. It is wrong to call Lee Chandler a “hero” in any romantic sense of the word, as he is just a guy trying to get by in a world that has dealt him a rotten hand. And any heroism that could be inferred from his Sisyphean struggle is betrayed by the evidence of his life. He balks at nearly every attempt at kindness, believing himself beneath it. He has reserved himself to wallowing, but nonetheless knows that there are good things in his life that he wants to maintain. Perhaps that is a kind of heroism, and perhaps it is just a man whose life was thwarted and will never reorient. In Manchester by the Sea, Affleck absolutely inhabits this character and his tragedy, and it is his best work to date.
This is ultimately what makes Manchester by the Sea such an emotionally devastating film. Some films are hard to watch because of isolated sequences or specific plot turns (The Accused, American History X, and Requiem for a Dream leap to mind, but there are many others). But Lonergan’s film delves beyond a tragic moment and mires itself in a tragic theme: some of the bad things that happen are inescapable. There is potential for window-dressing and putting on the airs of having moved on, but the daily reminders will never let a person move on fully. This is dramatized beautifully in the film through myriad details, including Lee’s aggressive outbursts, strange whispered rumors from the townsfolk, and that undeniable look of pity that so many people deliver to Lee.
Though it is undeniably a bummer, and will stick with you for days after a viewing (if not far longer), Manchester by the Sea is expert-level filmmaking and wonderfully rewarding. The story is engaging and inventive, and while many details are provided to enhance the full meaning of the plot, countless others are simply left for the audience to ponder over and flesh out with their own imaginations. The performances are beautiful, lived-in, and reserved – while also maintaining that New England, blue-collar coarseness that we’ve come to expect. Manchester by the Sea is altogether a magnificent film, though a thoroughly sad one. It is a film unafraid to wallow in tragedy and explore it at a personal and human level, and the result is one of the most potent films of 2016.