What Kenneth Lonergan understands, probably better than any other writer-director working today, is how difficult it is to communicate grief in a convincing way on screen. With three feature films thus far, Lonergan’s acute exploration of coping mechanisms seems almost universal in scope, yet minimal in execution; with Manchester by the Sea, he’s crafted another incredibly rich and intimate character study that touches on broader elements of the human condition. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives alone in a one-room apartment, content with his position as a lowly janitor and fine with living with little to no human interaction. This all changes after the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), one of the few people he’s kept in contact with over the years. During funeral proceedings, Lee is suddenly informed that he’s to take on guardianship of Joe’s son, Patrick (newcomer Lucas Hedges). This process means Lee must return to a community he’s long shunned, and come to terms with the losses he’s suffered.
Manchester‘s greatest strength is the prickly way in which Lonergan allows all that drama to play out: Lee is borderline unlikeable at the start, a man whose coping skills have rendered him nearly socially dysfunctional. (“You’re a fucking asshole,” Patrick says to Lee, and it’s an apt description.) Lonergan doesn’t allow Lee, who hangs with Patrick for most of the movie, to transform into a stand-up guy; instead, he focuses on the minutiae of the many difficulties he and Patrick negotiate at every turn, from trying to remember where they parked a car to the logistics of where to live once Patrick’s school semester ends. There’s a specific realism to all the decision-making these two navigate—and that extends to the rest of the film.
With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan’s crafted another incredibly rich and intimate character study that touches on broader elements of the human condition.
But what keeps Manchester by the Sea from becoming too one-note, given its depressing subject matter, is the comedic beats throughout. A puzzling inclusion at first, these moments help the drama breathe, and give more dimensionality to the emotional responses of these characters. Lonergan isn’t the only one here who knows how to display grief in a convincing manner: Affleck recognizes the need to scale back his charm, a move that distances himself from the audience, but creates more empathy as a result. Right before seeing his dead brother, Lee coldly responds to nurses and to Joe’s best friend, George (C.J. Wilson), making us question how much Lee cares about his brother’s death. Then, immediately after seeing the corpse, Lee touches his deceased brother’s hand. He begins to move toward his arm and then embraces Joe the best he can, visibly holding back tears. Moments like these make up the core of Affleck’s performance—a protective wall of bitterness occasionally coming down, revealing a shattered emotional core. Yet Affleck inhabits Lee beyond the sorrow and misery, affectingly moving him from a merely sympathetic character to a fully human one.
And as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, Michelle Williams mirrors this particular style of nuanced complexity. Up until the last hour of Manchester, Randi is hardly featured—and when she is, it’s either as a nagging housewife in flashbacks or just largely mute, as in whenever we see her and Lee in the present. For a while, it becomes a little infuriating just how little her character is given to do. However, when, in one scene, she runs into Lee while out with her child and new husband, the same type of emotional agony that’s haunted her ex begins to pour out of her as well. The audience is never shown the specifics of how Lee and Randi’s marriage ended, but with one conversation Williams exhibits enough pain in her face alone to convey a whole session of divorce proceedings. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t all such sustained highs—it has an overbearing score, and Hedges’ performance isn’t always at the level of Affleck’s—but for Lonergan’s strength of vision, and his actors’ work supporting it, it is still a largely staggering achievement.