Lee Chandler inhabits the far reaches of that pathos. So removed and despondent he has become to the tragedies of the past that the present barely registers a vibration, even when he is summoned in the early scenes to the hospital to deal with another: the sudden death of his younger brother Joe. Flashbacks indicate a certainty in his early demise, and indeed relatives react with all the typical hysterics, but never is it obvious that Lee is dealing fully with the news; he acts more like a distant acquaintance showing up in the final hour to express only the jolt of the moment. A very quick breakdown comes before a brief viewing of the body, and then more problematic realities: Joe has left his sibling custody of his teenage son, which contradicts his more immediate desires to withdraw and wither away. Destructive patterns are the framing devices for how these changes will pan out on screen, and Lee’s consistent inability to be courteous to tenants on the job (or to people looking over at him at the local bar) further necessitate the story’s own inner conscience: to leave a kid in the care of a man who can’t care for himself is an unjust fate, even in the context of a movie that ought to be filled with a sense of renewal or self-discovery.
But very little of that comes in “Manchester by the Sea,” a movie that reaches for the cold terrible truth of the human existence and finds that healing is only possible when the soul is willing to rise from its gradual decay. For some – mostly the younger or indirectly attached – it can be imperative to individual growth to discover joy or pleasure among the tears. But for those like Lee, who only know the compost heap of bad feelings and personal blame, recovery is a fairy tale better left for the daydreams of the driven. But he is not a puppet here for overreaching cynicism, nor is he merely there to destroy the yearnings of those who choose to hold his company. This is a broken man, sad and withdrawn, who only wants to work, eat, sleep and be left in the isolation that has become his routine. Death is sad but inevitable, and life is the prison that keeps him far from the peace he may silently crave. A lot of this goes unspoken in Kenneth Lonergan’s rather moving film, perhaps, because neither he nor his supporting players believe that directly. They are viewing the situation from outside looking in, in a space where their subject doesn’t so much resemble a man as he does a collection of flesh and bones seamlessly wandering among society’s more functional parties.
Not one to dismiss the audacious accessibility of nihilism at the movies, I nonetheless sat and watched the film in the cautious comfort of hope. The first act functions entirely as a technical mechanism for the craftsmanship of its director, but the second, containing an arsenal of key revelations and inevitable confrontations, is where the emotions are led into a series of complicated endurance tests. Sometimes we watch on with intrigue, other times horror, and almost always with baited breath – hoping entirely for an outcome where the central personalities will be allowed to smile again. The fog that surrounds them is inconsolable, but the present demands action for those still living. One of the key components in this observation is the relationship of Lee and his nephew Patrick, who has had years of practice in coming to terms with the impending death of his father; now, attempting to move on in a world where his closest consort is a ghostly male relative, he entertains the company of a pair of pretty girls, plays guitar in a teenage band and stubbornly attempts to repair the boat left to him by his dad. For Lee, these acts exist in defiance of colder comforts, even when the opportunities rest just within periphery to confront and deal with the demons he continues to run from.
Casey Affleck plays Lee, in a performance so on point and heartbreaking that one wonders what preparation went into the portrayal: a mere reading of a script, or an investment in the studies of the meek and suicidal. The trick of a plausible embodiment involves a certain unassuming conviction, a feeling that a character’s portrayer can simply move through his material without calling strategic attention to the behavioral limitations. His is a revelation that exceeds the more straightforward work of his contemporaries, and as he moved further into a situation that was destined to awaken him, I felt a sense of empathy that rarely sticks with me: the kind where I wanted to reach out and offer any help that I could. A great many of his surrounding counterparts do a phenomenal job of reaching deep to remove those emotional constraints, too – including Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife, who shares a scene with him towards the end that is so soul-crushing I could barely contain my own composure. Seeing it in the absence of fanfare or elaborate plot contrivance, I even wondered if the actors themselves were experiencing this sadness more directly than they were willing to admit.
If those certainties feel out of fashion with the more straightforward emphasis of modern dramas, it’s because few filmmakers have been willing to dissect their characters this deeply. That would require, for most, an understanding of the process that is too complex to fathom. But Kenneth Lonergan does something rather phenomenal with this challenge: reveals the wounds and then stands back to allow the dialogue and the emotions to overtake the characters, even when the temptation is great to simply rip the bandages off. One of his two prior credits includes the phenomenal “You Can Count on Me,” which more than informs his approach as a sympathetic observer. But where did he find the nerve – indeed, the shameless audacity – to plunge so thoroughly into this story without reducing it to melodramatic claptrap? There is a sincerity here that is as powerful as it is unexpected. Perhaps some of that comes down to the subliminal transitions between sad recollections and more upbeat discussions in the present. Perhaps it is because everyone involve plays this material straight and firm, unburdened by what they have observed in the more popular tearjerkers of the last two decades. And perhaps Lonergan identifies with the underlying melancholy of his story more closely than he lets on – is Lee’s depression just a device for this story, or is the narrative a consequence of what happens when the road to recovery becomes lost among the obstacles?
One does not walk away from “Manchester by the Sea” unchanged by what they have witnessed. Some will look upon these frames and expect a dreary recap of a troubled person’s past, while others will see the strange technical merits as indicative of yet another pretentious excursion into the arrogant artistic maw of independent filmmaking. But the movie is pulsating with urgency and feeling, not deadened by the suggestive framework of its premise. I could not take my eyes off any of these people, no matter how far astray they led themselves from dealing with the challenges of their very existences. There is a moment in the final minutes where Lee and Patrick exchange remarks that require almost no exposition to comprehend; though they have reached a crossroads that has involved nearly every negative tirade you can imagine, theirs is an acceptance that synchs precisely with the behaviors they have projected. In all that is forlorn there comes a realization that some are strong enough to walk among friends, while others are destined to only see shadows. Here is a movie in which we come to understand both perspectives because we genuinely want to.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama (US); 2016; Rated R; Running Time: 137 Minutes
Casey Affleck: Lee Chandler
Lucas Hedges: Patrick
Michelle Williams: Randi Chandler
Kyle Chandler: Joe Chandler
C.J. Wilson: George
Produced by Declan Baldwin, Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Josh Godfrey, John Krasinski, Bill Migliore, Chris Moore, Katie Pastore, Gigi Pritzker, Kimberly Steward, Ryan H. Stowell and Kevin J. Walsh; Directed and by Kenneth Lonergan