Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, takes on the difficult themes of grief, trauma, and the weight of the past. I say “difficult” because most films that try to depict these things don’t have a good enough understanding of the subject to do it well. The most common mistake made, and this actually applies to other kinds of films too, is having the characters realize what they’re going through and then articulating it for us. The best artists know that this doesn’t work—the evidence needs to be presented without the people in the film making any kind of a case. And Lonergan refrains in just that way, in this enormously accomplished work.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man of few words—in his early 40s, it appears—and working as a janitor in an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. He works hard, and is generally liked, although he shows his temper when a tenant gets cross with him. Then he gets some bad news—his older brother Joe has had another attack of congestive heart failure. By the time Lee reaches the hospital in the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Joe has died. Lee has to make the arrangements, and tell his 16-year-old nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, that his father has died. Later, Lee discovers, to his dismay, that his brother named him Patrick’s guardian, a job he doesn’t want and which he doesn’t think he can do.
In naming the film Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan, who also wrote the screenplay, has distanced us from the clichés of family drama and made the name of a place represent the pain that has happened within it. Lee used to live in Manchester-by-the-Sea. For some reason, he doesn’t want to live there again.
Casey Affleck’s work here, the best I’ve ever seen from him, conveys the threat of an emotional explosion countered by a constant effort of the will to suppress that threat. His brother’s death was not unexpected, but there are other past events haunting the narrative, and to lead us there, Lonergan flashes back and forth in time with a rhythm that matches Affleck’s hesitant and subtly contained performance. It’s significant that instead of giving us a big reveal at the end, which would be the standard, more manipulative strategy, Lonergan puts it where it really belongs, roughly in the middle, so that the emotions can ripple throughout the latter half of the film in a way that feels true.
There’s humor in the relationship between Lee and his teenage nephew. Lee comes off as a jerk a lot of the time, and Patrick lets him know it without holding back. But the conflicts are realistic, not contrived, and the humor is tinged with pain, which actually makes it funnier in a way. Michelle Williams has a relatively small, but very intense part as Lee’s ex-wife. Gretchen Mol is on hand as Patrick’s Mom, who has been out of his life for a long time for complex reasons. There’s a scene with her and her new husband, played by Matthew Broderick, that has that devastating strangeness that Lonergan is so good at creating when he wants to depict phony people and phony talk.
Describing the plot doesn’t really convey the film’s special quality. The movie unfolds in a way that allows the actors to inhabit the story—this feels like an experience rather than a drama, an experience that has the pace and the observational style of a gradual coming to awareness of loss, our loss, the losses that still hurt. Casey Affleck’s character can’t resolve it, he can just live through it on screen. Manchester by the Sea has the courage to leave part of itself incomplete, like the place in someone’s heart that will always be broken.