A note for readers – although I will attempt not to reveal crucial plot details that don’t fall under the general umbrella of the film’s premise (and which will certainly be incorporated into future trailers and the like), everyone has their own definitions of these things, so consider this fair warning.
All three of Kenneth Lonergan’s films deal with how people cope after tragedies. In You Can Count on Me, it was the past – two siblings who lost their parents in a car accident at a young age develop different ways of surviving that. In Margaret, the present; a teenager witnesses a horrific bus accident that leaves a woman dead in her arms. Manchester by the Sea folds a tragedy of the past into one of the present.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman for a block of Boston apartments.. He’s stuck in mundanity – shoveling snow, interacting with complaint-filled tenants, going to bars to avoid women and confront men, getting in trouble with the boss, going home to an empty apartment and televised basketball games that aren’t half as interesting as they used to be. The routine is grounding, but grinding.
Then the call comes from Manchester; his brother Joey died. As Lee accompanies the doctor to the morgue, Lonergan suddenly cuts to a hospital room in which Joey (Kyle Chandler), Lee, their father, and Joey’s wife are told Joey’s days are numbered; he has years, but they’re numbered. Did I misinterpret something and Joey is actually alive? And just like that, we’re back in the elevator with Lee and the doctor; it was just a memory. This brief diversion serves several purposes – it fills us in on Joey’s disease; it introduces us to other members of their family; it allows us to know who Kyle Chandler is playing without first meeting him as a corpse; and it tells us, crucially, that the past is constantly nagging at Lee, for reasons that will become clearer sooner than later, but which are best left for the viewer to find on their own.
Lee is left to deal with everything Joey left behind – a house, business, boat, and most importantly, a son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Joey’s wife is long gone, and he wanted it to stay that way. They have family in Minnesota, but with Patrick in high school, relocation is not ideal. But Lee’s past makes it difficult for him to look after Patrick, especially in Manchester. People look at him a certain way, talk about him behind his back. His ex-wife (Michelle Williams) has moved on, but still lives there. And then there’s the nearness of everything.
He makes a go of it for Patrick’s sake, though neither are particularly keen on opening up to the other. They share contempt for the deck life has dealt them, but Lonergan’s smart enough to know that even when someone dies, life goes on. And for awhile, it really looks like Lee can make this work. He and Patrick spend time driving around, ragging on one another and dealing with everyday frustrations of life – forgetting where they parked, making small talk with happier people, fixing a boat, awkwardness around any discussion of sex.
But the past keeps coming back at him. That initial flashback, so clearly presented as one, allows Lonergan and editor Jennifer Lame to handle the others more freely. Some scenes start without any indication of period. Other times, the changes are so jarring – especially any scene with Lee and his family – that the ache of implied loss is immediate. Some are directly related to the “main action”; others are pulled from nowhere in particular, the way memory actually functions. Whereas Margaret in particular was a master class in twisting and contorting the possibilities of long dialogue exchanges, Manchester‘s scenes are quite short, sometimes only a few quick lines. Lee is dodging true confrontation, or any process by which he might possibly be able to move forward in a permanent way; just speaking with people at all is difficult.
So much of the film’s effect is cumulative. The scenes, often banal and hilarious, don’t seem at first to carry a distinct purpose. Lonergan’s characters, as with most people, don’t spend most of their time talking about how they feel or what they’re going through. His cast is so charismatic, it’d hardly matter if they ever did. But it sneaks through in talking about other things; a slight shift in inflection or an averted glance. The rare moment of true revelation, even if it’s just barely mentioned, is shattering. Casey Affleck has practically made a career out of playing quiet desperation and interior agony, yet few directors (Gus Van Sant and Andrew Dominik, most especially) have let him keep that energy bundled, trusting he’ll still express it. Affleck’s natural lack of interest in appearing likable onscreen sometimes gets the better of him, and this character could certainly drown in distancing, but Affleck plays Lee’s attempts at disassociation from a place of fear. He’s scared of hurting anyone, and is actively looking for ways to punish himself. That these actions could also hurt people doesn’t occur to him or doesn’t carry much weight. When he and his ex-wife inevitably run into each other, their body language alone – instinctively gesturing to the physical familiarity they once shared, but unable to act on it – brought tears to my eyes.
Hedges is a revelation. Margaret showed how well Lonergan knows teenagers, that they speak with both unchecked confidence and barely-concealed fear. Patrick’s social circle, too young to empathize with what Patrick is going through, continually diverts conversations to their most immediate interests, even if just pride in being “there for him.” That’s generally fine with Patrick, as he can’t quite process what he’s going through either. He’s been expecting his father’s death for awhile. Young men in particular have a way of internalizing the “tough guy” exterior they feel compelled to project, which in a modern context involves tossing off tragedy as “a fact of life,” as though that refrain elides experiencing grief. Hedges plays the strain of that repression incredibly, letting Patrick fall into a trained sort of nonchalance until some small detail bursts the dam. His rapport with Affleck is what the entire picture hangs on, and the two really seem to have known each other for years. Like many families, they mix affection with disdain. I once heard it said that men bond with insults they don’t mean, while women bond with compliments they don’t mean. Lee and Patrick use speech to try to deny how much the other means to them, while strengthening precisely that.
This all leads to a final twenty or so minutes that would be obscene to detail any further. All I can say is that by the time the credits hit, I was absolutely paralyzed and as close to tears as I come. I can count the number of times this has happened – The Master, Rocco and His Brothers, The New World, Lost in Translation, Wild Strawberries, a handful of others. Some of the greatest films I’ve seen, all which came at key moments in life. Manchester by the Sea cut to my core in such specific ways that I’m surprised (but enormously pleased) so many others have connected to it as well. It so beautifully, engagingly explores the unending process of grief, and the guilt that comes with being unable to move past it. I know there are few things more annoying than Sundance hyperbole – the thrill associated with being the first to see a new film and going into overdrive in praising it – so I’m hesitant to make any grand pronouncements. If this should become an all-time classic, I wouldn’t be surprised; should it fade away for whatever reason, I’ll always have it. That’s enough.