The Manchester of the title is a coastal town along the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay, about 30 miles northeast from Boston. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a dejected man with a tragic past. A beleaguered soul, he is withdrawn, almost surly. He works as a handyman for a Boston apartment building complex. Early on, his grumpy interactions with building tenants are presented as a series of vignettes. It’s kind of amusing at first. We’ve come to expect humor in our cinematic tragedies so in the beginning these seem like comic relief. They aren’t. Lee possesses a thoroughly depressed spirit. In the opening scene, we see the past. He is an upbeat uncle, joking around with his young nephew (Ben O’Brien as young Patrick). They’re on a boat with Lee’s brother / Patrick’s father Joe (Kyle Chandler) off the coast of Massachusetts. Life is good. Flash forward to the present and things are a much different picture. How Lee became this way isn’t revealed until about halfway through. Our present story is set in motion when Lee receives a call that his brother Joe has died, forcing him to return to his hometown and confront demons he’d rather forget.
Lee Chandler is something of an enigma. He’s all pent up emotion. Uncommunicative, aloof, he has shut out the world. It’s easy to embrace someone who’s asking for help, but what about the individual who refuses to engage? Because he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, Lee is isn’t a very likable guy. Outwardly, he’s placid. Yet that doesn’t mean he isn’t tormented by a tornado of sadness. A maelstrom of pain surging inside that gives rise to violent outbursts. He talks with his fists, coming out swinging just because someone looks at him funny. One keeps expecting a tearful collapse that never arrives. The narrative is all about relationships minus the requisite sentimental displays of the main protagonist. It’s a “chick flick” for dudes. Casey Affleck gives a most uncharacteristic performance for this genre. The chronicle is all the more innovative because of it.
There’s a more conventional version of Manchester by the Sea. Its core of “family coping with loss” is a common story. This could’ve easily been a weepy tearjerker. It isn’t. Lonergan makes some uncommon choices in how to depict the tale that elevates it into something extraordinary. Casey Affleck is the core of the plot, but he’s supported by an amazing ensemble that also subverts our expectations. Actor Lucas Hedges is Patrick Chandler, Joe’s now teenage son and perhaps the second most important person in this account. Father Joe has made his brother Lee sole guardian of son Patrick in his will. I’ve seen these melancholy tales with kids before and I figured I had this Patrick character pegged even before we were introduced. His personality is nothing like I expected. I could explain how but that would spoil the impact of his disposition. If this drama does have that predictable emotional breakdown, it belongs Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. Her impassioned plea is the movie’s one concession to a giving the audience a catharsis. It’s my favorite moment in a film full of many.
Director Kenneth Lonergan received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his debut screenplay for the drama You Can Count on Me, which he also directed. The Academy bestowed another nomination on him for co-writing Gangs of New York for director Martin Scorsese. Then almost a decade of no output. He directed Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, as his second directorial feature in 2005, but the troubled production was mired in multiple lawsuits. It didn’t get released until 2011. As one of the most critically acclaimed pictures of the year, Manchester by the Sea must certainly be a validation, but it’s a reminder as well. Kenneth Lonergan is a unique talent.
Manchester by the Sea is highlighted by a brilliant script, also penned by the director. The narrative advances a progression of captivating conversations, as Lee deliberates on the past in flashbacks, as well as in the present day. The reflective piece is edited together like a shuffled deck of cards. The style mimics our own free association with the past as we converse with people in the present. These exchanges provide a deeper understanding of Lee Chandler. Sometimes it’s even more powerful by what it doesn’t say. The indefinable power of the silence in between what people actually express.
Music is an important component that changes with each segment. There’s an original score by Lesley Barber, but the soundtrack also features classical music. Handel, Poulenc, Albinoni, and Massenet are occasionally played loudly over scenes where dialogue would normally be heard. The technique is used frequently and periodically you feel the director’s hand guiding the viewer. Lonergan overtly pushes feelings that are already there. However, more often than not, the choice can be particularly compelling. A gathering of family and friends at the funeral home comes to mind. We imagine what the people are saying. We focus on their expressions in the absence of talk. The result makes the experience more dreamlike but also alien because the sophistication of the classical piece is so foreign to the blue collar aura of our central character.
Manchester by the Sea is like a mournful symphony gently guided under the masterful direction of its conductor. The adagio pace of the film unfolds as a contemplative composition. At 2 hours 17 minutes, it’s leisurely pace can tax the viewer’s patience, but the rewards are great. It’s a work marked by the modulation of sensitivity as we witness an evolution of poignant discussions. Happy, sad, angry – our undulating emotion crescendos with a heartbreaking conversation. The account ultimately continues on to the gentle sublime cadence. This is a movie about self-discovery. As such, we learn more about our character as the chronicle develops. It’s that gradual reveal of the narrative that keeps the audience captivated. Lee isn’t noticeably that much different at the end than he was at the beginning. Yet our appreciation for this man has developed. It’s an ending that plays out like life. This saga isn’t finished but we understand so much more now than we did when we started. I was enriched by the ride.