Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea is another intuitive film from the writer/director, a blend of the intellectual character/grief study of his You Can Count On Me and the inquisitiveness of Margaret. This film may lack the organic highs of his two previous efforts, but key to its sturdiness is a sharp screenplay and a bone-deep performance by Casey Affleck. The film and Affleck are raw like the bitter cold of winter, but lifted by the burning soul underneath.
Affleck’s Lee lives a solitary life in Boston, haunted by an unknown grief with bouts of anger to fill the time. The monotony is broken by the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks), and the return home shows Affleck’s strongest abilities: an evasive slipperiness that bristles at connection. As Lee has to care with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he also has to ward often the ghosts of the past including his ex-wife, soulfully realized by Michelle Williams. Hedges is an understated but ferociously present talent, especially in a scene where he delivers the most believable panic attack I’ve ever seen on film. The solid ensemble begs for more attention, but this is Affleck’s show.
Manchester embodies Lee’s depressive grief to both fascinating and detrimental effect. Just as memory sneaks up on us from behind and startles us, the film edits back and forth in time to reveal the central tragedy in sputters, like the film is trying to forget as much as Lee is. The downside is that the film often becomes sluggish to the point of dulling its precision, and too tangential. But there is also truth to the scenes that deny easy emotional answers even as the comfort of closure is sought, resulting in the unexpected to even the characters. The film is at its best when the fallout is shrouded in irony.
For yes, the film lacks catharsis just as much as Lee denies it of himself. “That” scene that you’ve no doubt been teased between Williams and Affleck works so well not for being the sob-inducer the poster and critical hosannas promise, but for being the thesis of the film and its central character for how it avoids that kind of response. To call the film a tear-jerker is to miss the point somewhat, and perhaps the same goes for reducing Lee’s grief to just maleness (though that is tempting). Manchester is about frozen grief as self-punishment, of being stuck because feeling you don’t deserve any better.
It’s the warmth that surrounds Lee that actually stirs his potential thaw: Patrick’s need, the reach of reconciliation from his wife, the memory of his doting brother. The film is smart to leave plenty of inconclusiveness to his outcome, even if its episodic nature begs to have some sense of overall closure at the end. Manchester By The Sea reaches for something honest, even if in doing so, it somewhat limits itself.