The early scenes of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea require your attention and patience, as Lonergan gives no hint of the stunning reveal coming around the corner. When we meet Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck), he’s making a consistent living cleaning toilets and working as a maintenance man. Lee is alone and determined to fill his time with work. When Lee receives news of a death in the family, he drives out to a town he was once happy to put behind him. Once funeral arrangements have been made, Lee discovers that his role as “Uncle Lee” may become greater than he ever intended.
I’m being vague in my measly plot description for good purpose, as each scene builds with character detail and answers crucial questions as to who Lee is and why his past is so tortured. Lonergan’s screenplay intercuts flashbacks with the present narrative in a way that is initially confusing, until all the pieces are carefully aligned.
Lonergan’s film, a tough, observant character drama, is initially hard to get into, as he expects the audience to soak up the details and patiently absorb information from each scene. It reflects Lonergan’s reputation as a gifted playwright, though his approach is somewhat more taxing than cinematic. Once we finally witness the life-altering event that would cripple Affleck’s character, the film settles in and belatedly reveals itself to be a bittersweet parable about the father/son dynamic.
The film has moments that are refreshing in their honesty, like a funny bit where two characters can’t remember where they parked their car and wander around in the cold weather. There’s also a moment where Lee is invited to dinner by a woman who’s clearly interested in him and he ponders whether to take her up on it. Thinking about it a moment, he then tells her no and drives off. I’ve never seen that in a movie before and appreciate the refreshing honesty of the moment.
Manchester by the Sea is closer to Lonergan’s somber, rambling but engrossing second film Margaret, and not his tight, perfect directorial debut You Can Count On Me. Like Margaret, his latest is a meditation on loss and guilt, and how one person’s carrying grief on their shoulders can affect the world around them.
Affleck is superb, conveying the pain of a man who feels defeated but finds new purpose in becoming an active family member. The one-two punch of his 2007 arrival as a major actor in Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is reinforced. As Lee’s brother, Kyle Chandler once again adds enormous gravity to his scenes (when did the former Early Edition actor suddenly become one of our most promising new film stars?). Michelle Williams’ supporting role is small but recalls her fierce work in Blue Valentine. Her big scene with Affleck late in the film is as good as you’ve heard, though it’s just one of many great scenes here.
Of the large, impressive ensemble, newcomer Lucas Hedges is the biggest standout as Lee’s nephew. There’s also Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick, who play characters so intriguing that I wanted more of them. Yet, Lonergan is wise in his decision to give them a strong introduction, then keep them at a distance.
The surprising doses of humor are welcome, especially in a film this heavy. Not helping is the overbearing music score and some too-on-the-nose song choices (like “I’m Beginning to See the Light” just as things move in a positive direction). Yet, the intelligence and hard-earned sense of hope this conveys is stronger than its drawbacks. The best and worst thing about Manchester by the Sea is that Lonergan boldly never makes this journey easy on his audience.