The persistence of grief and the hope of redemption are themes as timeless as dramaturgy itself, but rarely do they summon forth the kind of extraordinary swirl of love, anger, tenderness and brittle humor that is “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully textured, richly enveloping drama about how a death in the family forces a small-town New Englander to confront a past tragedy anew. That rather diagrammatic description does little justice to Lonergan’s ever-incisive ear for the rhythms of human conversation, as he orchestrates an unruly suite of alternately sympathetic and hectoring voices — all of which stand in furious contrast to Casey Affleck’s bone-deep performance as a man whom loss has all but petrified into silence. Giving flesh and blood to the idea that life goes on even when it no longer seems worth living, “Manchester” may be too sprawling a vision for all arthouse tastes, but Lonergan’s many champions are scarcely the only viewers who will be stirred by this superbly grounded and acted third effort.
Premiering at Sundance 16 years after Lonergan made his prize-winning debut there with “You Can Count on Me,” “Manchester by the Sea” is recognizably of a piece with both that film and its troubled, long-gestating follow-up. Finally released in 2011 after years of legal and logistical wrangling, “Margaret” was a magnificent ruin whose defenders and detractors could nonetheless agree that Lonergan remained one of the most distinctive writing talents on the American indie scene. Although far less likely to polarize than its predecessor, the new film offers a similarly bold merging of ensemble drama and character study, all in service of a story about how a person — and crucially, the surrounding community — choose to deal or not deal with the consequences of a fatal mistake. The various and venerable spirits of “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Ordinary People” and “In the Bedroom” may hover over this movie in wintry setting and theme, but “Manchester by the Sea” is very much its own singular, seething creation.
We first encounter Lee Chandler (Affleck) as a hard-working, taciturn Boston janitor/handyman, whose daily routine of unclogging toilets and painting walls offers scant distraction from the throes of some all-consuming private anguish. Whether on the job or at a bar after work, Lee isn’t one for small talk, and he seems more inclined to converse with his fists whenever push comes to shove. Gray skies and falling snow have rarely looked so forlorn; this truly is the winter of Lee’s discontent, and clearly the latest of many. When he receives the news that his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died of a heart attack, he doesn’t seem to grow any more solemn or inarticulate than he already is, even as he makes the lonely drive up to Manchester-by-the-Sea, the Massachusetts hometown that cruel and as-yet undisclosed circumstances forced him to abandon years earlier.
Those circumstances are gradually shaded in through a steady succession of flashbacks to happier times, and they’re not woven into the main drama so much as dropped in, with stark, discomfiting abruptness. We see Lee enjoying idyllic afternoons with Joe and his son, Patrick (Ben O’Brien), sailing their rickety old boat in the Manchester harbor; Joe receiving the diagnosis of congestive heart failure that presumably drove his wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol), to hit the bottle and ultimately end their marriage; Lee playing the role of fun-loving family man to his loving but exasperated wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and their three young children; and, in a harrowingly sad sequence, the pointless, unspeakable tragedy that drove Lee to his current life of remote solitude.
The use of flashbacks to connect emotional fragments and convey narrative detail can too easily become a screenwriter’s crutch, and it will take time for attentive audiences to adjust to the herky-jerky rhythms of “Manchester by the Sea”; this is not a film overtly concerned with easing you into its world of sorrow. But gradually enough, the pieces start to snap ever more absorbingly into place, and the blunt matter-of-factness with which Lonergan pivots between past and present comes to make a deeper thematic sense. For those, like Lee, who have endured the very worst, neither the present nor the future can offer any relief from the past, and a sudden near-accident or a poorly chosen word can bring the most painful memories rushing back to the surface.
An American filmmaker unusually attuned to the messiness and clumsiness of most everyday interaction, Lonergan steers Lee and his few remaining friends and family members through the forced, awkward rites of bereavement. But Lee is completely unprepared for the bombshell that, per Joe’s wishes, he is the legal guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges) — now a popular, sometimes temperamental and perpetually horny teenager for whom the full realization of his father’s passing clearly has yet to fully register. Presently, the lad remains mostly concerned with being a hockey star, playing in his rock band, trying to get into the pants of two different girlfriends, and making sure that his Uncle Lee doesn’t mess things up for him too badly.
Just as “Manchester by the Sea” avoids the pitfalls of that most overworked of dramatic templates, the death-of-a-child meller, so it mercifully avoids devolving into one of those tidy, odd-couple therapy exercises where two mismatched souls each become the healing that the other needs. Instead the movie is focused, honestly and entirely, on how Lee and his fellow survivors cope with the here and now, all of them stumbling forward one day at a time and realizing the world doesn’t slow down for their benefit. Most of them probably know it already: These are people with hard minds and thick skins, and nearly all of them speak in the foul-mouthed, salty-surly idiom that is as much a fixture of their milieu as the biting cold and the briny sea air (conveyed with an almost palpable texture and forlorn grace by the brilliant d.p. Jody Lee Lipes).
Lonergan arranges all these raucous voices into a chorus of overlapping lines and halting cadences, and on more than one occasion you may find yourself wishing some of them would shut up already. That extends even to the music, courtesy of composer Lesley Barber and music supervisor Linda Cohen, which adds yet another deliberate layer of cacophony: There are moments when a classical piece or an old blues standard rise to a pitch well beyond that of mere background accompaniment. Only a wordless, beautifully harmonized vocal performance, recurring at key intervals, offers the respite of something resembling silence.
Most of the likely criticisms of Lonergan’s film will likely center on its wild swings from mournful, minor-key drama to tart, tetchy comedy, which would make sense if the events being depicted naturally lent themselves to exacting tonal discipline. But the inelegance of the storytelling here is of the sort that testifies not to a filmmaker’s sloppiness, but rather to the messiness of real life. “Manchester by the Sea” may not be as formally and structurally daring as “Margaret,” but in its steady, forceful accumulation of perspectives, it emerges a movie of similarly symphonic ambitions and fierce, uncompromising performances.
Doing his best and most sustained acting since “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Affleck finds the eloquence in his character’s ineloquence; our brief glimpses of his more playful, carefree self throw the enormity of his trauma into stark relief. Yet the performance never feels lifeless or anesthetized; even Affleck’s mumbling evasions are charged with feeling. By the end, we have a clear understanding of Lee Chandler as a good man bravely re-engaging with his former life the only way he knows how, and being honest enough to acknowledge that it may be too much too soon.
Affleck has a terrific foil in the 19-year-old Hedges (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “Kill the Messenger”), playing Patrick as a ball of rowdy, tempestuous adolescent energy who nonetheless submits with surprising ease to his uncle’s instruction, as though recognizing his need for an authority figure in his father’s absence. Chandler is wonderful as Lee’s sturdy, salt-of-the-earth brother; that we always want to see more of him on screen renders his absence all the more haunting. And it wouldn’t be a Lonergan movie if he and his regular collaborator Matthew Broderick didn’t show up, making appearances of an almost comically tossed-off brevity.
While “Manchester by the Sea” is very much about uncles, nephews, fathers and sons, Lonergan, always a superb director of actresses, gives the women in his ensemble their due. It’s been a while since Williams had a role this good, but she’s lost none of her unerring knack for emotional truth in the meantime, and she has one astonishing scene that rises from the movie like a small aria of heartbreak. And as Patrick’s mother, Mol gets one short but powerful late moment in which she tries to reconnect with the son she barely knows, and her words seem to distill the energy and emotion of this remarkable movie into one line: “You don’t have to be so formal.” As Lonergan knows, it’s often hard enough just to be human.