Loss and grief—and the messy, indirect ways people cope with the emotional fallout—were the dramatic linchpins of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s first two films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. And so it is again with Manchester by the Sea, a movie with a grand scope but an intimate story. An ambitious, practically novelistic exploration of the tragedies that have greeted a blue-collar Massachusetts family, the film touches on themes that won’t be unfamiliar to viewers, but Lonergan’s particular approach makes them unique, although not always completely successfully. Still, Manchester by the Sea is a commanding, absorbing work in which the sum of its impact may be greater than any individual scenes.
The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman who wanders through a pretty lonely life taking out other people’s trash and fixing their stopped toilets. Lonergan spends considerable time setting up Lee’s humdrum existence so that we’re properly moored in his world before he gets some terrible news: His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from a heart attack. Heading home to Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle the funeral arrangements, Lee is hit with a second shock. In Joe’s will, he requested that Lee become the foster parent of his 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Considering that Patrick’s mom (Gretchen Mol) is an alcoholic who left town long ago, Lee is the only person who can really take care of the boy.
Those would be enough traumas for anybody to absorb, but Manchester by the Sea has more tales of woe to unleash upon the viewer, including the reasons why Lee and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) split up years ago. (As a hint, it has something to do with the three children they had when they were still pretty young.) Lonergan focuses mostly on the present as Lee returns to his hometown, but he nicely weaves in flashbacks to show the incidents that led the Chandlers to the position they’re in now. Flashbacks are a common filmic device, of course, but for the most part Lonergan invests them with an emotional connectivity to the present-day scenes so that we understand why Lee is choosing to remember a certain past experience right now.
As opposed to the intimate, short-story quality of You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea bears the same sprawling ambition as Margaret, Lonergan draping the proceedings in a tragic grandeur that sometimes rubs against the film’s inherently hushed modesty. (Frequent use of classical or orchestral music during key scenes artificially amplifies the drama in ways that simply aren’t necessary: The filmmaker’s story is resonant enough without the extraneous musical oomph.)
Perhaps it’s here where I should own up to the fact that, while eventually I came around to a begrudging respect of Margaret (which barely got released by Fox Searchlight and went through several edits before hitting theaters), I’ve always preferred the minute heartbreak of You Can Count on Me to the soaring, rambling, chaotic sturm und drang of Margaret. With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan continues in a similar tonal vein as Margaret, emphasizing the ugly, impolite disorderliness of grief. To my eyes, though, Manchester packs a tighter, more focused wallop.
Lee is a hothead even before he learns of his brother’s death, getting into bar fights and cursing out impatient employers. (In his hometown, he has the reputation of being “the Lee Chandler” because of an infamous, horrible incident that’s connected to the dissolution of his marriage.) Lonergan doesn’t make it easy on us with Lee, who’s rough around the edges and unable (or unwilling) to articulate his feelings in any sort of meaningful way. (His common response to other people is a shrug or a mumbled, noncommittal set of words that don’t add up to much.) Not unlike Margaret, Lonergan in Manchester by the Sea has given us a main character whose impulsive, sometimes irrational actions are a side effect of the complicated emotions he’s not expressing.
Lee’s unlikely companion in this journey is Patrick, who had a full life before the death of his father. Juggling two girlfriends—they don’t know about each other—as well as a band and a spot on the hockey team, Patrick is as busy as Lee is lonely, and one of the film’s constant intrigues is watching these two try to sort out exactly how they’re going to operate as foster parent and son. (In flashbacks, we see how close they were when Patrick was younger, but Lee’s desire to live in Boston clashes forcefully with Patrick’s insistence that he’s not going anywhere.)
On occasion, Lonergan can seem too enamored with his characters’ artfully constructed inarticulateness. (A decorated playwright, Lonergan sometimes writes dialogue that feels too theatrical for the common-man characters that populate his film.) And Lonergan has admitted that he’s still finishing a final tinkering on this film, which, at 137 minutes, does feel a bit flabby in places. (As in Margaret, the story purposefully meanders, picking up side characters and subplots along the way.)
But such mild reservations shouldn’t diminish so much that’s compelling in Manchester by the Sea. Affleck is quietly magnetic as a man who can’t express himself at a time when he really needs to step up and be the patriarchal figure. And Hedges and Chandler are both quite good, their characters buried deep in the man’s-man culture of the East Coast communities in which the film is set.
But especially terrific is Williams, who has played haunted wives in Brokeback Mountain and Shutter Island. Here, though, she really pierces the heart: Her character never stopped loving Lee, but her brain told her she had to if she was ever going to move on with her life. In this film, she’s actually one of the lucky ones. Tragedies drop like bombs in Manchester by the Sea, and the ripple effects spread out in all directions. The movie’s ending isn’t exactly happy, but after all the Chandlers have gone through, just the possibility of acceptance can feel like a hard-earned victory.
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler
Release Date: Nov. 18, 2016
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.