Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan specialises in studies of grief, guilt, and bewilderment. You don’t watch his movies in the hope of the kind of New Year cinematic pick-me-up that La La Land provides. Manchester By The Sea is in a similar register to You Can Count On Me (2000) and his troubled 2011 feature, Margaret. In his movies, he provides very closely focused anatomies of characters who’ve suffered extreme emotional trauma. Here, janitor and handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is the one who is suffering.
The film could easily have seemed grim and foreboding in the extreme – a story of a father and husband who inadvertently caused a tragedy in his own family and is full both of self-loathing and of hostility towards the world. That Manchester By The Sea is so absorbing is down to Lonergan’s painstaking directorial style and to a superb Method-style performance from the lead actor.
As Lee, Affleck doesn’t get many great soliloquies in which to express his feelings. Much of his time on screen is spent shovelling snow, fixing blocked drains or sitting in offices, listening to doctors, bosses or policemen, all invariably telling him the worst. There is nothing remotely charming about him. His idea of recreation is propping up a bar, drinking as much beer as he can and then slugging anyone who has the temerity to look at him.
Affleck plays Lee with a pained, bewildered look in his eyes. There is a very telling moment early on in which a customer berates him and he swears at her (“I don’t give a f*ck what you do, Mrs. Olsen.”) For all his seeming aggression, his manner is fatalistic. He goes about his tasks in an efficient but robotic way, shunning all human contact, but we can sense his pain.
Lonergan lays on the gloom. The film is set in the dead of winter. It is freezing, too cold even for the undertakers to dig into the ground to bury a body, so the corpses are left in the freezer. The classical music on the soundtrack adds to the elegiac feel. The director makes as few concessions to the audience as the janitor does to his customers. If Lee receives a call, he’ll be shown listening. If he is in a car, Lonergan will film him driving, staring blankly ahead.
The film is very matter of fact, and morbidly comic, about the whole business of dying. When Lee is called back home, to Manchester-By-The-Sea, because his brother is dangerously ill, the doctors and nurses take him through a routine that is clearly very long rehearsed. You’re allowed a moment with the body. If there are tears, someone will get the Kleenex. There are forms to fill in, funeral arrangements to be made. Affleck’s face, throughout this entire rigmarole, is a landscape of suffering and plaintive, barely suppressed rage.
Flashbacks are thrown into the film very briefly. Suddenly, as we see Lee as the devoted dad with his beloved wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and kids, colour and energy will flood into the frame. Lee will be shown goofing around.
Lonergan’s screenplay is deceptively intricate. Lee wants to be on his own but the moment he is back in his home town, it becomes apparent that he is caught up in a complicated web of different relationships: with his brother’s flaky, alcoholic wife (an enjoyably neurotic cameo from Gretchen Mol); with old friends and, most importantly, with his brother’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The biggest conflict for Lee comes when he learns his brother has appointed him as Patrick’s guardian. Taking on such a role will force him to come out of his self-protective shell.
Patrick is the opposite of Lee, a fiery, impulsive teenager who plays in a band and is one of the stars of the high school hockey team. While he is busy looking for new experiences and embracing life, Lee is the Scrooge-like figure, saying no and trying to keep the outside world at bay. For a few moments, as the focus shifts onto Patrick’s life, the film begins to resemble one of those John Hughes Brat Pack movies.
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There are very funny interludes in which Patrick and his girlfriend are shown pretending to do their homework in an upstairs room when they are really trying to have sex. Patrick deals with his grief in an entirely different way to his uncle. He looks outward. He is as gregarious as Lee is solitary.
It’s typical of Lonergan’s approach that the most intense moment in the movie – the chance encounter between Lee and his now-remarried ex-wife – is so inconclusive. Earlier in the movie, after the accident which has ruined their lives, she is shown recoiling at his slightest touch. It’s a testament to Michelle Williams’ ability that she’s able to bring such complexity to her role as Randi even though she’s only on screen for a few minutes.
Somehow, over a couple of minutes, standing on a street behind a park, she manages us to show us her character’s humour, fieriness, her sense of yearning and heartbreak, her vengeful feelings and her pity for Lee.
“Look, Lee, you made a horrible mistake like a million other people did last night. We’re not going to crucify you,” a friendly cop tells the suicidal Lee after the accident which devastates his family. It’s a throwaway line but sums up perfectly one of the main themes of the movie – namely that “sh*t happens” and that when it does, the worst punishment is always likely to be self-inflicted.
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