Kenneth Lonergan, writer and director of You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011) specialises in depicting the humanity of grief. Without his touch, Manchester by the Sea (originally a Matt Damon production) could have easily buckled under the weight of Hollywood’s oversimplified tropes of masculine bereavement. There’s little new in a story about a man whose outward manifestation of sorrow is silence, grunting and bar fights, and yet the duo of Lonergan and Casey Affleck have created something that, if not new, is undiminished by its own pastiche.
A sea, a boat, a grey-blue sky: the opening scene of Manchester by the Sea sets the mood for the rest of the film – briny, and grey-blue. It would be trite to call this film a mediation on grief; it is very much more and less than that. It is a study of loss and hurt yes, a human story and a powerful one. But a particular kind of human story, a white-male home-owner type story and an exploration of a very particular, masculine demonstration of grief.
Lonergan is not unaware of this and makes some effort to mask the issue, carefully including a Jewish grandmother and a young African-American woman in a scene otherwise designed to display Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as the bluest of blue collar workers – a reticent Boston janitor with a dark past, a penchant for bar fights and no discernable social skills. When Lee’s brother Joey dies, Lee is forced to move back to Manchester to make arrangements and look after his brother’s 16-year-old son, Patrick. There, he is surrounded by the whispers of the townspeople (‘that’s the Lee Chandler?’) and his own haunting memories. Unbeknownst to Lee, Joey has made him Patrick’s legal guardian and it is this strange and unwanted responsibility that steers the meandering narrative.
Rather than sharp plot points, the story pivots around the mundane features of everyday life to convey meaning: filling out endless forms, making funeral arrangements, reheating pizza and forgetting where the car’s parked. It’s life at its most tedious and at it’s most real. The narrative dances between the minor-key and slate of the present and vivid flashbacks in which Lee is gregarious, affectionate and animated. The flashbacks arrive during the most prosaic moments, bringing back to life and slowly revealing the past that Lee is so determined to run from.
Lonergan’s control over mood is precise – he deftly interweaves vibrant flashbacks (no sepia or fuzzy film work here) and smart humour through a story drenched in the stuff of tragedy. Editor Jennifer Lame must take much of the credit – it was her idea to use the flashbacks and her meticulous stitching together of scenes (many of which are surprisingly short – some even less than thirty seconds) creates a close approximation of the stilted nature of time: sometimes so slow it could crush you, sometimes so quick you forget yourself.
Non-linear and deftly constructed, the script is underscored by Jody Lee Lipe’s wintery cinematography – a constant and grounding background of lapping waves and snow – and the funereal and choral-heavy score of composer Leslie Barber (though the decision to play Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings and Organ in G minor during a flashback unveiling Lee’s past tragedy borders on cliché).
At 2 hours, 17 minutes, Manchester by the Sea does, at times, loses itself in the sprawl, but Lonergan prevents it from becoming exhausting through well placed, downplayed humour: an absurd struggle with the wheels of an ambulance gurney, Patrick’s thwarted attempts to sleep with one of his girlfriends while her mother checks in every ten minutes, a phone call disrupting Joe’s funeral.
Manchester by the Sea is, at heart, a beautiful rendering of loss and guilt. There are scenes alive with such humanity that it almost hurts to watch. A panic attack over frozen chicken adds a gulping three-dimensionality to Patrick that viewers will feel in their stomachs and Michelle Williams’ (who plays Lee’s ex-wife) and Affleck’s final scene together – a chance encounter on a street corner – is utterly sublime. Williams’ sobs are raw and Affleck’s inability to deal with the situation, his anxiety and floundering – ‘There’s nothing there” he says in an attempt to explain – is real and beautiful and devastating.
This is a career-best performance from Casey Affleck, bruising in its intensity. Lee has few, short and mostly reactive lines and Affleck plays him with quiet gestures, perpetually hunched shoulders and a gritty emptiness that never feels vacant. His improvised kiss when viewing his brother’s body, the way his voice cracks over the phone and the tenderness with which he packs three photos into a suitcase are moments of high art.
His scenes with Lucas Hedges playing Patrick are also remarkable, and their almost fraternal relationship (‘Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?’) is the living soul of the film. Patrick is an unexpectedly real teenager – moody, horny, funny and warm. He spends his time talking shit with his friends (about StAAH Trek no less – to best show off that Bostonian twang), playing in a crappy punk band, juggling two girlfriends and dealing with his father’s death. He is no cliché troubled teen and the nuance he brings to the role is truly impressive.
Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, while featuring prominently on the posters, receives something like six scenes in the final movie. While brief, each is perfectly acted; Williams has the amazing ability to completely inhabit the character she’s playing. While it would have been wonderful to see more of her, her character sits at odds with a film so heavily invested in portraying white male fragility, sorrow and stoicism.
While it is frustrating that the movie fixates on the silent, broody construction of male grief (admittedly, the only expression of grief permitted by Hollywood sensibilities), Lonergan’s bold refusal of a cathartic ‘it’s not your fault’ moment (or any kind of closure), and his unsentimental focus on Patrick and Lee’s prickly and uncertain relationship, keeps the film exhaustingly and heartbreakingly true to life.
* I have refrained from commenting on the sexual assault allegations against Casey Affleck in this review. Affleck was accused by two female colleagues who worked with him on I’m Still Here (2010). Cinematographer Magdalena Gorka and producer Amanda White alleged that Affleck bragged about his sexual exploits, propositioned them, grabbed White and got into Gorka’s bed uninvited. They also allege that he instructed a crew member to flash them his penis. Affleck settled their claims privately for US$2million in 2010.