Now Terence Malick is churning out films with terrifying regularity, and even Whit Stillman has returned to the fold, there’s a vacant position in independent American cinema for talented and elusive filmmakers who only surface with new work after lengthy gaps. Step forward Kenneth Lonergan, who isn’t new at all, but finds his reputation considerably enhanced every time he releases something. Manchester by the Sea is his third film since he debuted with You Can Count on Me in 2000 and it’s a fantastically moving, beautifully observed portrait of a very broken man struggling to take his first steps back to the world.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is the gentleman in question; a friendless, anti-social outcast who works as a janitor for obnoxious and leery residents in several Boston apartment blocks. He lives in one-room accommodation, drinks too much, fights occasionally, and can’t go even the slightest distance towards placating others with social pleasantries. For all intents and purposes he’s dead already, little more than an animated corpse stuck in the same menial routine of toilet unblocking, snow shovelling and trash removal.
Death, the cause of all his problems, also offers the closest he’s ever going to get to salvation. When his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, he’s forced to return to the town that caused him so much self-inflicted pain. There lies Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and a catalogue of figures left behind including his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).
Given the consistently high standard across all areas of the film, it’s hard to pick Manchester by the Sea’s strong point. At a push, Lonergan’s writing probably wins out over Affleck’s astonishing performance. Lonergan has the easy flow of a playwright (he is one after all) stripped of the stage artifice that can undermine theatre writing when transferred to the screen. He captures distinct voices, infusing them with sharp humour, wry insight and blind spots. He uses this to turn mundane conversations about old motors, frozen pizza, and homework into something captivating without over-dramatising anything.
It helps to have a cast as good as this though. What an actor Casey Affleck has developed into. Walking around hunched forward, he answers in single sentences and stares awkwardly into the distance when more is expected. He’s a man filled with such pain that he’s shut it all away. When emotion does crawl out it’s all the more powerful to watch knowing how rare an occasion it is. A simple kiss on the cheek of his dead brother sets the tone early before Affleck rattles through a series of subtle gestures that manage to strip bare a man not prone to revealing anything of himself. Affleck is the star no doubt, but Chandler and Williams in cameo flashbacks, Lonergan gently moving the story forward by throwing Lee back into the past, bring their own frayed gravitas. Praise must also go to Hedges who manages to play the grieving son without resorting to any of the usual tics and tropes wheeled out in mainstream cinema.
In a lesser movie, lessons would be learned and hope would flourish, but Manchester by the Sea is no lesser work. When Lee is made his nephew’s guardian, he takes a step or two towards re-entering the world without a full conversion. He starts broken and he ends that way. In between we watch him grapple with the extent of his internal damage. When Lonergan finally reveals what went wrong for him, he does so in stomach churning style. It could have been the single stand-out scene. In any other film it would be. Here it’s one of many stand-outs.
There’s also, surprisingly given the low-key nature of the story on paper, a strong argument to be made for seeing it on the big screen. Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography sweeps across the empty town harbour as the dysfunctional family go out on the water in Joe’s boat. The picture is wide and striking, grey clouds blurring the boundaries between sky, water, and land. There’s also a fantastic score from Lesley Barber, rising and swelling in time to the emotional beats. It elevates Lee’s struggle, turning a story so personal into something grand without losing the character-driven moorings. That’s Manchester by the Sea all over. It’s small and its big, it’s restrained and it’s stripped raw. It’s a lot of things that add up to one hell of a film.
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Runtime: 135 mins