With Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan returns as the master of the sad family drama, although after you watch a Kenneth Lonergan movie, you start to wonder if there’s any other kind. What sets Lonergan apart from so many other filmmakers is his deep commitment to the moral failings of his characters. We want them to wake up, to change their lives for the better, to say “I’m sorry” and “I love you”, but so many of them “just can’t beat it,” as Lee, the main character in Manchester, finally admits.
Lonergan’s directing debut, You Can Count on Me, was the gem of 2000, a supposedly bad year for movies, that featured wonderful, heartfelt, and delightfully nutty performances from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as a dysfunctional brother and sister coming to terms with the tragic deaths of their parents—when they were small children—and so many other things that have happened to them in the subsequent twenty years of their lives. Manchester By the Sea likewise hinges on several tragedies, one of them in the present (the death of Lee’s brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler in flashback), and one from the past, rearing its head like a specter and consuming Lee apparently for good.
As Lee, Casey Affleck gives a heartbreaking performance. In an early scene, he’s drinking at a bar and erupts in anger at two strangers, because they're staring at him. The chip on Lee's shoulder weighs him down, and anger is the only emotion he can produce; it wells up uncontrollably and spills out into the lives of everyone around him. But we get the impression Lee’s always been sort of an asshole, even before all the funerals that have left him emotionally dead. He’s a gruff, tough, wise-talking blue-collar boy from Manchester, Massachusetts, and when he’s called back to his hometown (now he’s a handyman living in Quincy, just outside Boston) because of Joe’s unexpected death, everyone knows him, and quite a few people mutter under their breath, “that was him. Lee Chandler.”
The film revolves around the relationship between Lee and his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, giving a funny, salty, and sharp performance). Lee reluctantly assumes guardianship over his nephew, and the two of them eke out some kind of existence, although Lee keeps threatening to move them back to Boston, despite the fact that Patrick’s life—his two girlfriends, his athletics, his rock band, and his dad’s boat, which has been left to him—are all there in Manchester.
But there’s too much life in Manchester for Lee, or too much death, rather. As the two of them drive to a neighboring town to arrange Joe’s memorial, they pass a graveyard, and Lee remarks to Patrick, “there’s no funeral home in Manchester, but the cemetery’s here.” Manchester itself becomes a monument to Lee’s grief, and to the life he once had with his children and his ex-wife Randi (played by Michelle Williams, whose performance is so good she even wrings a few tears out of Affleck’s hardened Lee).
And even though Manchester by the Sea is sure to squeeze the moisture out of its audience by the gallon, the film isn’t just a somber tearjerker. Lonergan is too invested in the humanity of his characters to leave out humor, even at its darkest, like when, in a flashback, a doctor tells Joe he has congestive heart failure. “It’s a bad disease,” the doctor says, trying to be honest and sounding too glib; “What’s a good disease?” Joe asks, and Joe’s wife, Elise, storms out of the hospital room, unable to laugh at such a frightening moment. Patrick, though grieving his father's death, doesn't stop being a teenage boy: his multiple attempted conquests with one of his girlfriends comes to mind, or the moments when he scolds his uncle for being socially awkward, or when, during Joe’s funeral, we can hear the vibrations of Patrick’s cell phone from a text he’s receiving, layered under the classical piece that scores the entire sequence.
Lonergan masterfully curates the music for certain dramatic sections of the film, including the afore-mentioned funeral, during which Lee and Patrick greet numerous guests, among them Randi, who's remarried and expecting another child. Just about any dialogue Lonergan might invent would probably be trite or at the very least repetitive; the music in these scenes (he uses Handel, Massenet, Albinoni, and Poulenc) speaks something truer than words, on an emotionally true level that deepens our own response, letting these composers' music fill in the emotional beats: such juxtapositions could easily veer toward the self-important or the histrionic, but Lonergan knows the line of tragedy and comedy and he and his actors walk it with an astonishing finesse. And in the process, the film becomes all the more personal to the viewer. These characters don't do what we expect them to in movies; they do what they do, because they've become as human as anyone we know in real life. That's what makes the hurt so good.
Indeed, Manchester by the Sea will tear out your heart and put it back and stitch you up. It won’t tell you it loves you, but it will love you in its own way, perhaps with its remarkable mixture of brutal honesty and tenderness. There’s no better film to see during the Christmas season, when the pressure to be happy is unbearable, and you need a beautifully made, perfectly structured feel-sad movie to keep you company. I loved it.
With Gretchen Mol, C. J. Wilson, Matthew Broderick, Kara Hayward, and Erica McDermott.