There’s a tragedy at the heart of Manchester by the Sea, but you’d never see it behind that emotionless wall separating Casey Affleck from the rest of the world. His eyes are remote and affectionless, but not unreachable—that tiny thread of hope is what Kenneth Lonergan hinges the film’s dramatic bearings on. Affleck protrudes emotions which seem to work on a completely separate dimension than most people, but his conviction is grounded in such raw human dejection you’ll never mistake Manchester by the Sea as anything other than pure, unfiltered human drama. Much like the film itself Affleck’s performance is rich with deeply buried grief and an underlying wealth of human affection—all existing just out of arm’s reach of the personal toxins that he, and maybe a great deal of us, carry in death’s inevitable (and sometimes unexpected) wake.
Manchester by the Sea was originally the brainchild of Matt Damon but due to the A-lister’s scheduling conflicts most of the script’s heavy-lifting was tasked to acclaimed playwright (and established filmmaker) Kenneth Lonergan whose previous work Damon had already familiarized himself with—the two collaborated for the terribly underrated Margaret (2011). Margaret was a production backed with outrageous controversy; it ended with Martin Scorsese editing the final cut, resulting in a shorter film than Lonergan previously intended and him having garnered a reputation among studios of being too inflexible. I was disappointed to learn that the cut of Manchester by the Sea I had originally seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival had also been edited down to a more streamlined running time but not too surprised—Lonergan’s films (and a lot of other directors) normally stretch past the tolerated threshold of most big studio limits (this one runs at 137 minutes). Manchester, however, overcomes the systemic butchery of the cutting room floor through Lonergan’s sheer clarity of vision. Following a long respite from filmmaking Kenneth Lonergan turned what was essentially an early Oscar-prestige picture into something of an American classic, both acutely understated in its dramatic conviction and nostalgic in its depiction of the American working class.
To simply describe the premise of Manchester by the Sea would be doing this tapestried depiction of a disenfranchised American family a disservice; but it’s low-key sampling of grief is essential in enveloping its intentional off-not lap of luxury. Following his brother’s death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) relocates to his hometown (the titular Manchester-by-the-Sea) where he’s named the legal guardian of his brother’s 17-year-old son. In theme, Manchester’s premise sounds equally run-of-the-mill: a man afflicted by painful memories finds himself forced to confront the tragedies of his past when he returns to his hometown, the place where the fragments of his early life still fester, unhealed. Lonergan overcomes the braindead sincerity and predictability of both premises by converting this classic portrait of a “death in the family” into a more grounded and complex interpretation of family: temporarily shared moments, a formal communion of blood ties and an informal binding of lost connections.
Affleck plays off every other performance in the movie with a boyish impatience, effectively turning small-talk into conversational miscarriages. They’re funny, terse and heated (a comedy of manners in every respect), but his inability to make even a single meaningful human connection give his prospective character arch the underpinning of a Greek tragedy. Lonergan doesn’t make Lee Chandler a sympathetic character, but the understated way he affirms each of Lee’s personal failures, without the slightest bit of empathy, becomes desensitizing. Lee has accepted his fate as a loser and is content with that. The opening moments in Manchester by the Sea introduces us to Lee Chandler (in a flashback) as a spirited uncle who is out fishing with his brother and nephew. Cut to present day and he’s a completely different person; an introverted, unhappy janitor whose every encounter occupies mostly two things, dreary blue-collar routine and meaningless chitchat.
We see two portraits of this man, both significantly different; what it doesn’t show is how or why such a dramatic change occurs. Everyone in his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, knows what happened to him, but they won’t talk about it. The real mystery here is Lee Chandler himself. The man, whose suffering is irrepressible, whose torment is invisible, distances himself so far from everyone that the circumstances behind his name become almost mythic: “so that’s the Lee Chandler,” says his nephew’s hockey coach, after the recluse makes a rare appearance in his hometown. Lee ingrains past failures and tragedies to his persona like personally inscribed scars that everyone can see. His journey forward in the film is intercut through a cacophonous series of flashbacks (outstretched like bad and happy memories on a single spectrum of cause-and-effect). The flashbacks come and go without any perceivable rhythm, but they have the powerful effect of unveiling every bit of hidden grief, regret and longing the characters secretly harbor in their hearts. Flashbacks act like Manchester by the Sea’s patchwork—giving seemingly unassuming, innocent moments uglier (and, often time, tragic) dramatic context.
In a culture where films celebrate the unmitigated power-of-will human emotion can bestow on tough times, Manchester by the Sea seems eulogize how these same emotions can fail us, even when we need them most. Lonergan’s flashbacks show us the result of tragedies and their consequences, but much of the credit should go to Casey Affleck, whose revelation as a leading man has been far too long overlooked. Lonergan (and, of course, his editor Jennifer Lame) knows how to employ the power of a cut; the structural integrity of Manchester by the Sea’s flashbacks becomes more than a connective tissue for past, present and future—they embody state of mind in which moments, past and present, are bound to a single time and place. Affleck pomps the emotional carnage of these scenes; the passionate glint in his eyes, within a few frames, can turn turn into wide, soulless voids. Michelle Williams is also remarkable, delivering a brief—but harrowing—performance. The scene I suspect will be the most talked about (involving her and Affleck) showcases some of the two’s most explicitly discomforting work.
Manchester by the Sea grounds its feet in the type of social realities and interpersonal dysfunctions that most Hollywood films would sooner sentimentalize, turning emotionally unstable human beings into likable, misunderstood trouble-makers or de-characterized empowerment fantasies. This film sees its bleak premise to the end, without compromising to instinctive whims of emotional closure and forced resolutions. Films make us cognizant to the idea of a resolution; nothing truly lasts in film—not even death—but Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, which places death at its forefront, ends as somberly and inconclusively as it begins, revealing to us an emotionless limbo in which tragedy is permanent.