There’s a body in the morgue. A husband, father, brother, son. What does it matter? It wasn’t much of a surprise. The grieving has been ongoing, a decade-long drip feed into the familial bloodstream. Joe Chandler, dead in his 40s, a rare heart condition. He leaves behind an irascible sixteen-year-old son, an ex-wife who left years earlier without a trace, a younger brother who hid himself away from the world in anonymous janitorial jobs. Joe’s death isn’t an event, it’s a process. From the moment he passed on the institutional structures in place—hospitals, law firms, funeral homes, churches—began rerouting the lives of those in mourning along pre-ordained, collectively accepted lines. An old friend of Joe’s breaks down in tears in the hospital hallway. A sympathetic nurse gets him precisely two Kleenexes.
Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature film and first in a half-decade, is not about Joe Chandler’s death, nor his palpable absence in the seaside New England community. It instead chronicles a detachment from the immediacies of grief; an uncle and nephew, bound together forcefully by circumstance and inextricably by blood, who grapple with future and past by almost always speaking around one another.
Casey Affleck, whose career has been a succession of quiet, inward-facing roles, has finally found one in Lee Chandler that treats his defining reservedness not as affectation but as a complex act of self-imposed isolation and self-destruction. Affleck’s nuanced performance—marked by pointed glances and gritted teeth—is ably assisted by the film’s very particular structure; flashback sequences bubble to the surface, following the ebb and flow of Lee’s once repressed remembrance of a tragic event even closer to home than his brother’s death. To label the film a slow burn seems misleading. Though Lonergan withholds crucial information about Lee’s past it never builds towards any great revelation; we learn about the horrific act in question halfway through the film’s 137-minute runtime.
When that moment comes, just like the awful accident in Lonergan’s 2011 film Margaret, it’s sudden but not random. Individual negligence and tragic happenstance collide; the uniquely grotesque accident becomes a spectator sport. Those onlookers, the nexus of people and place, are the catalyst for Lee’s exile. He can’t even get a beer in Quincy, 44 miles away, without someone whispering his name. What separates Affleck’s Lee from Anna Paquin’s Lisa Cohen is public recognition of fault.
The almost uniformly white, working-class characters in Manchester (and Manchester) lend the melodramatic premise an even greater sense of well-worn familiarity, something which Lonergan slowly chips away at through the refusal of Lee and nephew Patrick (an impressive Lucas Hedges) to conform to tried-and-true tropes of narrative and our collective understanding of the grieving process. Patrick’s blasé response to his father’s death reflects the deadened sense of a strong family unit, his concerns (at first) are the immediate: friends, sex, pizza. Also at odds in the film is the encroaching choral score by Lesley Barber and the sharply observed realism in dialogue.
What feels both surprising and wholly natural, though, is the undercurrent of humour throughout, part and parcel of that sharp social observation. Manchester by the Sea is really funny, which seems an odd thing to say in the wake of the critical consensus declaring it a tragic masterpiece for the ages. As Patrick and Lee snipe at one another, or as Lee refuses to flirt with one of Patrick’s friends’ mothers, it’s a pleasant distraction for both character and viewer, a momentary step away from events that are nothing less than heartbreaking.
This avoidance of the past is tethered, subtly but effectively, to the lapsed Catholicism of the family. Though the climactic scene between Michelle Williams (as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi) and Affleck has perhaps the most devastating exchange in the film, a particular moment that left me reeling involved crucifixion, or rather the lack thereof. In a flashback sequence, police officers holding Lee for questioning throw their hands up in the air. “It’s not a crime…we’re not gonna crucify you.” The absence of punishment feels to Lee like an extreme bar to true penance. Shattered, he leaves the interrogation room unencumbered by handcuffs. He turns, leaps at the gun on an officer’s belt and puts it to his head. His brother and father watch helplessly from across the room.
Lonergan has always been generous with his minor characters and Manchester is no exception. There’s a plethora of familiar faces who crop up for a scene or two, each involving characters who vividly define themselves in such a short space of time: Tate Donovan, as the unnamed hockey coach, offers to be a shoulder to lean on for Patrick, though he seems to offer only because he knows it won’t be accepted; Heather Burns, the bubbly single mother who knows a lot more about her daughter than she lets on; Lonergan himself, in a hilarious and amusingly indulgent sequence, where he chastises a stranger in the street (Lee) for being a bad parent, then offers to fight him; and, of course, Lonergan regular Matthew Broderick, in a note-perfect turn as a stuffy and controlling man of faith. Williams has garnered an Oscar nomination from a role that amounts to little more than ten minutes of screentime but she manages to make Randi more than just a figment of Lee’s past in a wrenchingly awkward phone conversation and, in particular, her final sequence with Lee, where her outward emotional breakdown hammers home Lee’s relative and total retreat from the world.
The small parts and their players are more than just a run of cameos, they paint Manchester-by-the-Sea as a living, breathing community. Defined by its inhabitants, the city is less indifferent to individual suffering than resigned to its inevitability, a weariness which carries over into Jody Lee Lipes’ reserved cinematography. This commitment to the tapestry of a fairly closed-off community makes Lee’s inner turmoil, and his ultimate rejection of the town he grew up in, so much more impactful. There’s no true solace in his pushing aside the past once more. Manchester by the Sea isn’t concerned with finality or even redemption, rather the mess of life, unmoored from the belief that everything will be okay. When Randi calls Lee to pass on her condolences, she signs off with a well-meaning “God bless”. Lee replies after a pregnant pause: “So long”.
Around the Staff