Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan is fascinated with the drama surrounding tragedy. Like his first two films – 2000’s You Can Count On Me and 2011’s Margaret – Manchester by the Sea’s focus is on examining grief and the ways it’s processed. Unlike Collateral Beauty, which attempts a Hallmark-esque approach to the idea of grief (the premise of which becomes more troubling the larger you think about it), Manchester strives to neither judge the process of grief nor grant a happy ending. Instead, Manchester is devastatingly grounded; offering to audiences a great film whose story unfolds delicately, piece-by-piece.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a solitary existence as a handyman in Boston until the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces him to return to Manchester to care for Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and make funeral arrangements. As Lee’s responsibilities increase in the wake of his brother’s death, so does his compulsion to flee Manchester and the past that haunts him.
A clear amount of thought went into the structure of Manchester to ensure that audiences are not overwhelmed with the inherent darkness at the center of the story. To do this, the film is broken into two hour segments whose tones are significantly different from each other and whose approaches to the story are unique. Though Manchester begins with Lee and Patrick fishing on a boat, which sets up a great deal of hopefulness, the first hour is about tearing Lee – and subsequently the audience – apart. Through abruptly interjected flashback sequences, appearing in the same way our memories jar us from the present, we learn more about who Lee is, his relationships with his family, and why he left Manchester. Dolling out the story in pieces – one flashback at a time – successfully increases the emotional weight of each new piece of information, as well as forces the audience’s perception of Lee to continuously shift. In this first hour, laughs are few and tensions continually rise until Lee’s past is fully revealed. At this moment, when all hope is lost, is when the change comes, when laughter finds its way into Manchester, providing a great deal of levity to take the audience through the final hour. The flashbacks stop now that the audience is caught up with Lee’s past, enabling focus to be back on Lee and how he’s deal with the present and trying to plan for the future.
As a caution to any viewer, the first hour may decimate you in its treatment of death and grief. It’s here that Lonergan’s work stands out as a masterwork due to its authenticity. The treatment of the dead, the minutiae of funeral planning, and the manner in which family and friends process grief is authentic to the point of causing the audience trauma. Unlike most films, which dodge the incidentals of funeral planning and the impact that process has on the grieving, the minutiae is treated with as much significance as the larger moments.
With so much care given to the structure and pacing of the narrative, it’s impressive that Lonergan’s gave equal care in the design and construction of the characters. Affleck portrays Lee as a man so weighted down by grief, it manifests in perpetual stillness, as though any action or reaction will create greater discord. Yet, it’s his reluctance for movement that keeps his healing stalled. Conversely, Hedges’s Patrick is ceaselessly moving; either by dialogue or action, Patrick seems on the verge of bursting in every scene. Perhaps as a means of demonstrating his youth or naiveté, Patrick’s constant motion implies a desire to avoid his own grief for fear what pain stillness brings. The dichotomy of Patrick’s unstoppable force slamming against Lee’s immoveable object is both the source of their conflict and eventual salvation.
Baring the remaining emotional weight are Kyle Chandler as Joe and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. Both characters have the least screen time, yet their presence is felt throughout the film – whether the audience notices it or not. Films have used spectral presence as an internal motivator before, but the audience was typically clued in on it through the entirety of the film. The brilliance in Lonergan’s narrative construction is the revelation of who these characters are, as well as their emotional connection to both Lee and Patrick. As mentioned before, the unfolding of truths is delicate and delivered with time to process; enabling the audience to more easily catch up to where the characters are in the present-day. Given the realized significance of these characters, Chandler and Williams impressively deliver understated performances that engage the audience without overloading on melodrama. Audiences are used to Chandler being the emotional center of much of his work, so his performance could best be described as “as-expected.” Williams, however, is an absolute stand-out, well-deserving of the recognition she’s receiving for the role of Randi, as her performance is far more understated than audience’s might expect, while simultaneously delivering the most honest and accidentally-destructive interaction within the film.
With the controversy surrounding Casey Affleck, it’s hard to root for his character, as well as his performance, without taking his personal actions into consideration. However, Lonergan’s story is so utterly compelling in its heart-wrenching narrative that it necessitates a separation between reality and the fiction. Some might argue that Manchester is only compelling because of Affleck’s portrayal of Lee, yet the character is so dissociated from everything around him that it’s nearly impossible to connect with the character. Instead, I would argue that the narrative is the true barer of the success of the film, making Lonergan the one who should be praised.
Ultimately, Manchester by the Sea is a classic character study that deserves a larger audience despite the actions of its lead. Given the chance, whether in theaters or at home, make the time for this film. It’ll break your heart into a million pieces, but take comfort knowing that everyone who sees this carries a broken heart too.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.