Downbeat film of the week: Manchester by the Sea – a bracing portrait of grief

With an outstandingly icy Casey Affleck as a mournful loner drawn back into his old fold, Kenneth Lonergan’s New England community study is a masterful, darkly American account of a heart in the dead of January.

☞ Upbeat film of the week: La La Land – a modern musical of stardust and blues

Nick Pinkerton
Updated:

Guy walks into a bar. Bartender asks, “You watch the game?” Guy says, “Yeah, I did.” “You think they got a shot?” “No. Not at all. They dropped the first two, they’re gonna lose the next three.”

The guy at the bar with faraway eyes is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who’ll bust up the joint by the end of the night, one of the spasmodic episodes of violence that interrupt the overall tone of steadily trudging depression hanging over Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, a piece of work so wholly untouched by the cult of specious optimism that it doesn’t seem for a moment to belong to the ‘It Gets Better’ universe of the American Sundance indie. It is, nevertheless, a thoroughly American movie in its regional dialect and its imagery – the recurring ‘pillow shots’ of the harbour off Cape Ann owe less to Ozu than to the 19th-century views of Gloucester by Fitz Henry Lane, or perhaps Melville’s “damp, drizzly November in my soul” (though Lonergan’s film feels like the dead of January). It belongs to that dangerous, broody America where death was always a-lurking – that is to say, the same one that’s around today, though it doesn’t often like to admit itself as such.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Rudderless Lee has had his cup of sorrow filled three times and running over. He is a foundered man compelled to return to the hometown where he ran aground, drawn back by a fresh family tragedy – the entirely anticipated death of his older brother due to a pre-existing condition, leaving behind a teenage son who legally needs looking after – to revisit the scene of another tragedy from years ago, a fatal fire that still smoulders in his mind. Affleck’s performance deserves all the plaudits it’s gotten – the glassiness that only snaps into focus in moments of peevishness and rage, the vestiges of ball-busting humour that he still keeps up, as though through muscle memory. He has the loneliest walk you’ll ever see.

This shit-magnet man locked into the tunnel vision of despair is at the centre of Manchester by the Sea, but the film’s perspective doesn’t conform to his monomania. Lonergan takes the trouble to show us how interesting everyone around Lee is as well, and in this the director resembles Mike Leigh at his best. From the film’s opening, when we watch Lee interacting with the residents of the apartment complexes where he acts as janitor, you have a sense of life going on around him, regardless of, and indifferent to, his insuperable sadness. There isn’t a single roughed-in sketch in the cast. Appearing only in the flashbacks that criss-cross the narrative, Kyle Chandler plays the older brother, Joe – a bluff, hearty guy whose absence leaves a real hole in the movie. Michelle Williams plays Lee’s wife, seen both during and after the dissolve of their marriage, and in her final scene, when they are again alone together, she seems really taken by surprise by the violence of her seizure-like emotional disgorging.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Even Matthew Broderick, who appeared in Lonergan’s directorial debut You Can Count on Me (2000), shows up in a late cameo that might not be worth the risk of distraction were it not for the fact that it brings the movie exactly the right depth-charge blast of quiet suburban desperation. And then there’s the real discovery, young Lucas Hedges, as Joe’s boy Patrick, who handles his father’s death with the equanimity of a kid who’s been practising for this moment, a lanky playboy-in-the-making who for now is reliant on his uncle to drive him between his hook-ups and band rehearsals – very funny scenes in a movie that has more laughs than a work so emotionally punishing has a right to.

The past is eternally present for Lee not only in Manchester by the Sea’s flashbacks but in the tossed-off dialogue. Watching a second time with full knowledge of Lee’s history, seemingly aimless patter reveals itself to be laced with scourging reminders of his shame – that bit on “losing the next three”, for instance, or a tenant prattling about a granddaughter’s bat mitzvah (“Oh, well, the little girls are charming”). This isn’t writerly flourish; these are exactly the little cracks that sorrow finds a way to seep through, as true to the experience of endless mourning as the jagged crusts of snow by the cleared sidewalks are to New England weather, or as the way characters talk of the sea is to the life of the coastal New Englander. The movie ends where it began, on the water, but it’s no chin-up maritime metaphor – even a no-hoper can’t help having some days that are better than others. 

 

 

In the February 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

A winter’s tale

A middle-aged loner has to face his demons when he is drawn back to his old hometown to care for his nephew, in Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s intricate, understated and devastating portrait of a blue collar community haunted by tragedy. By Jonathan Romney.

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“Risk-taking is essential”

Michelle Williams’s extraordinary ability to bring raw emotion to psychologically knotty dramas has assured her place as one of the finest actors of her generation. By Isabel Stevens.

 

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