Stars: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler | Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Kenneth Lonergan’s last film, Margaret – a vast New York opera which movingly explored the nature of subjectivity – was secretly one of the best American films of the century so far. But given that film’s “challenging” production and distribution, no one would begrudge him the success of Manchester by the Sea, a safer, more palatable awards contender.
Oscars shoe-in Casey Affleck plays Lee, a jobbing Boston janitor, endlessly shovelling driveways which will be snowed over by tomorrow. He gets glimpses of the lives of others but it only reinforces the sense that he hasn’t a life of his own. One day Lee learns that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died. Lee returns to the town of the title, where he is made aware that Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is now effectively orphaned – and Joe’s will states that Lee should be his guardian.
The rest of the story basically follows Lee’s and Patrick’s attempts to come to terms with this revelation – and the former finds it a whole lot less appealing than the latter. Along the way we learn of Lee’s previous life with Randi (Michelle Williams), and the tragedy that brought their relationship to a catastrophic halt. It’s an event that informs the entire character of Lee, the spiky enigma.
Proof once again that interesting needn’t equal likeable, Lee is a mumbling grump of wordless frustration; an echo of a man who vents his grief through punching whatever or whoever happens to be close by. Even when we are made aware of the great tragedy of Lee’s life, we struggle to sympathise; and the mixed responses of the citizens of Manchester embody the conflict inside us the viewer.
So, as with Margaret, a death propels the narrative. Except in the former film the protagonist’s grief was acted out, whereas Lee’s is almost entirely internal. Meanwhile, Patrick is the virtual opposite of Lee: popular, expressive, easy-going. Upon learning of Joe’s death, Patrick doesn’t have a historic horror to learn from like Lee does. Patrick looks to his uncle for the wisdom he knows he possesses, yet Lee has never learned to translate his grief into the language of human communication.
This is undoubtedly a film about communication – and usually the lack of it. The script’s dry humour comes not from perfect zingers but incompatibility and miscommunication, with moments of levity distinguished by characters literally misunderstanding what the other says. Indeed, many of the clearest conversations are played out in silence, behind glass and behind music. Lonergan prefers to focus on stuttered, awkward conversations, where the truth lies. Lonergan’s skill is in finding the humour that clings to everyday micro-calamities.
The theme of communication extends to the relationship between us the audience and Lee. We’re looking for a way in. Considering it was a role written for Matt Damon (producing here) it seems conspicuously written for Affleck. Alongside him, Hedges is a revelation, brilliantly portraying a kid for whom bereavement is a new breed of trauma; a kid who wants to continue with the chicks and the banter, except now those things are an emotional bulwark; a kid unprepared for the irrevocable change of loss.
Manchester’s status as an awards contender might seem obvious from the subject matter, but its style and observations are anything but obvious. The basic setup of the movie could have made for a very cheesy redemption story, or a Blind Side-like idealistic dramedy. Mutual learning is, after all, rocket fuel for Hollywood sentimentality. But Lonergan has bigger ideas, and they’re explored through a very wise and often ironic microscope. His eye for human nuance, and his understanding of generational gulfs, remains peerless. Moreover, as with Margaret (a tale for a post-9/11 age if ever there was one), there is the sense of Lee the individual reflecting something about the contemporary American psyche: the disenfranchised, white, working class male without an outlet for his rage, so the world becomes his target.
The level of detail and world-building, and the “patient” pacing, is such that the film easily breaks the two-hour barrier. This is one element that may give some pause. And perhaps the colossal central tragedy at the centre of the film, in lieu of an expressive main character, could be construed as a shortcut to sympathy, even if it does allow us some understanding of – if not access to – the ball of rage that is Lee.
Also, for all their elegance, I felt upon first viewing that the somewhat stultifying slow-motion classical music montage technique was overused throughout the film (although one such montage does get a great punchline involving a vibrating phone).
Lonergan fans will of course lap up his first film in the best part of a decade. For the rest: approach with an open mind and an afternoon free. Manchester by the Sea is determinedly languid and understated. This is a drama first, and one which thoughtfully tackles some very challenging themes of regret and bereavement. But there is also consistent, knowing humour (the mother/daughter double date scene is the funniest setup I’ve seen in a while). The movie begins and ends with unassuming beauty, coming around in a full, imperfect circle – apt for a film which is itself imperfect, but full of life.
Manchester by the Sea opens in cinemas on 13 January 2017.