Casey Affleck joins the ranks of giants in a tremendously moving portrait of grief
The proud white steeples, choppy waters and forthright, salty demeanour of small-town New England make an exquisite counterpoint to a devastating tale of buried trauma in Manchester by the Sea, an emotional powerhouse with the weave of great literature. Kenneth Lonergan, the film’s writer-director, has already proven his ear for raw domestic showdowns with his compassionate 2000 debut, You Can Count On Me. After that, he added sensitive teenagers to the mix via the sprawling post-9/11 NYC drama Margaret (2011), a movie that escaped its troubled postproduction to emerge as a bruised, one-of-a-kind keeper.
To say Lonergan has evolved further with his third feature would be an understatement: He toggles between his new plot’s years with the relaxed mastery of Boyhood’s Richard Linklater. Plus, he finally has a complex central performance that anchors his ambitions to cinema’s all-time great brooders – Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and the Heath Ledger of Brokeback Mountain.
It comes from Casey Affleck, who you already knew was better than his brother, Ben (no extra credit there), but whose high, keening voice and fragility never suggested such ferocity. Affleck is Lee, a Boston handyman and janitor. For all of Lee’s quiet capability with a clogged toilet or a leaky pipe, you don’t want to cross this man, or he’ll lash out, with bile hiding just beneath his surly squint. Affleck burns off the screen in these early scenes, building up a depiction of a lonely one-room existence. The actor’s long-stare gaze at a bar (soon erupting into violence with an ugly fistfight) tells us he’s way past giving a shit about anything.
As for why, that remains a mystery – for now. While you sense that Lee is exactly the kind of person who needs no more bad news, it arrives in the form of a heart attack that kills his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler, superb in the movie’s many flashbacks, interrupting Lonergan’s flow like a past that’s never quite past). As Lee drives up to the wintry title town of his youth – to make funeral arrangements – we begin to see what closed this man off, what makes him ache.
Manchester by the Sea contains multiple detonations, the kind a lesser drama would save for its climax. In Lonergan’s style, he sets them to classical music – the most harrowing to Tomaso Albinoni’s mournful Adagio in G Minor, resulting in a sequence of sudden loss that has few equals. But in a delightful early surprise, Lee learns that he’s been made legal guardian of Joe’s boy, seen in happier days fishing off the back of the family’s workboat. Today, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a typical mouthy teenager, juggling two unknowing girlfriends, a pissed-off hockey coach and an intractable rock band called Stentorian.
As stirring as these comic moments are—each containing the potential for Lee’s reawakening to human connection—that’s not Lonergan’s game plan. He isn’t making a film about rebounding so much as coping, and he lets his extraordinary female players carry much of the weight of that idea: Gretchen Mol, as Joe’s long-divorced wife, tries to combat her alcoholism with a newfound religiosity (but given the glass clinks heard from the kitchen, we know better). Meanwhile, the mighty Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife, now remarried, stuns the film in its tracks with a late-breaking scene that hitches your heart in your throat.
That’s what makes Manchester by the Sea a gift–a dark, courageous one. It says that for some people, there won’t be any moving on, no fixing what’s shattered, even as their bodies, their families, their lawyers, their whispering communities say otherwise. These sad people will walk into another day, perhaps with more openness and a nephew to bear the burden. For that honesty alone, almost unbearable yet expressed with rare poise, the movie is as meaningful as any we’re fortunate to get.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
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Thanks for that advert with the volume turned way up. Nice way to subvert your own success. Here I am listening to Spotify and trying to read your review, but because of your adverts, I had to pause Spotify, turn off the speakers, and then commence with the reading. Between pop-ups, sound, and moving adverts off to the side making it impossible to concentrate on reading, I really miss the ad-free early days of the Internet.