“Some films you watch,” hailed Ordinary People’s poster back in 1980, “others you feel.” By that same tagline logic, Manchester By The Sea, another story of grief and loss, is a film you get socked hard in the chops by. It’s an emotional tour de force by a filmmaker and writer, Kenneth Lonergan, who draws a career-best performance from Casey Affleck and lays to rest the frustrations and false starts of his last film, litigation-mired drama Margaret. Somehow, you emerge enriched, if a little bruised, by the experience.
Gritty and often devastating, sure, but soulful and surprisingly funny.
Like Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s Best Picture winner, Lonergan’s film tackles the heaviest of themes, unbearable personal tragedy and guilt, although with a notably lighter touch. For every moment of heartbreak, every quiet gesture of unspeakable sorrow, there’s a sharply judged laugh or killer put-down. It’s gritty and often devastating, sure, but soulful and surprisingly funny with it. It might just be bound for Oscars, too.
We meet its central figure, Affleck’s hunched, doleful divorcee Lee Chandler, shovelling snow, clearing drains and dealing with the tetchy, demanding residents of a Boston tenement. He lives in a box room and picks drunken fights in nondescript bars. He’s a man doing penance in a purgatory of blocked loos and black eyes. News of his older brother’s death, however, soon sends him back to Manchester, a seaside town an hour up the coast and the site of a loss so profound and inexpressible, no-one even mentions it. Only the sideways glances and whispered asides of locals hint at the magnitude of what passed. He’s no longer Lee Chandler here; he’s the Lee Chandler.
Using flashbacks that bring warmer shades to the leeched-out, wintry frames, Lonergan introduces the past players in Lee’s drama. His wife, Michelle Williams’ smart, sparky Randi, completes a domestic idyll of playful roughhousing and happy kids. His older sibling Joe, played with gruff warmth by Kyle Chandler, is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition in a hilariously dysfunctional family gathering at his hospital bedside. The two brothers continue to take to New England waters on Joe’s boat, taking turns to spook Joe’s young son Patrick (in flashback played by Ben O’Brien) with unconvincing tales of schools of killer sharks beneath. What none of them know is that, in everyday life, there are even greater perils lurking just under the surface.
The exact scale and circumstance of Lee’s tragedy is finally laid bare in a truly harrowing scene. It’s a typically understated sequence — this is not a film that milks its twists for dramatic impact — and all the more devastating for it, with Lonergan’s camera focusing on the faces of bystanders as the emergency services buzz around them. It’s a smart narrative device, too. For the viewer, finally dealt into this hitherto unspoken catastrophe, there’s newfound understanding of Lee; a surge of insight into his state of mind.
Affleck recalls Brando in On The Waterfront — and there’s not much higher praise than that.
Uplift comes in the shape of an odd-couple relationship with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now 16 years old and, thanks to a shock clause in Joe’s will, his ward. Newcomer Hedges is terrific, a funny and warm foil for a man who’s lost his ability to relate. He shoots the shit with his friends about Star Trek, plays in a punk band, and awkwardly asks Lee if his girlfriend can stay over. “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?” comes the puzzled response. Patrick masks his own grief much better than his uncle, until it finally pours out when a freezer spillage sparks a panic attack. Typically, Lee misinterprets it. “If you’re going to freak out every time you see a frozen chicken,” he offers, “I think we should go to hospital.” Emotionally tone deaf as they are, it’s in these tiny moments that you can feel Lee’s sense of self inching back.
Affleck is revelatory in a role once earmarked for Matt Damon (who, with John Krasinski, originated the project). In one unforgettable, searing scene, already one of 2017’s best, he and the terrific Williams try to bridge the ocean that’s opened between them, only to find the distance too great. In a career full of stalwart work, Manchester By The Sea is the perfect showcase for his full range. From playful and boisterous to husked by sorrow, he flickers from boyish to broken as the timeline shifts. A mix of sadness, self-loathing and dormant charm, there’s even something in it that recalls Brando in On The Waterfront — and there’s not much higher praise than that.