Manchester by the Sea Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
Most dramas about a past tragedy are fundamentally reassuring—they seek to comfort viewers by showing characters who ultimately overcome personal trauma, albeit not without a struggle. Manchester by the Sea, the third feature by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), offers a bleaker viewpoint. It’s not that the film is utterly without hope, by any means; Lonergan is a realist, not a nihilist, and he includes plenty of humor, compassion and touching grace notes. But he also acknowledges a hard truth few movies dare to entertain, which is that there’s no “getting over” some horrors. You can make a simple mistake that will haunt you forever, and while it’s heroic to keep going under those circumstances, that doesn’t make the day-to-day business of living any easier for the hero in question.
Casey Affleck has already won multiple Best Actor awards—all of them richly deserved—for his deeply internalized performance as Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor prone to insulting people who hire him for odd jobs and starting bar fights for no reason. The source of the chip on Lee’s shoulder is still a mystery when he returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea upon receiving the sad news that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died. Turns out that Joe designated Lee, without ever consulting him, as the caretaker for Lee’s teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), setting aside a sum of money to pay for Lee’s relocation to Manchester. (Patrick’s mother, a drug addict played by Gretchen Mol, is out of the picture.) Lee insists, however, that Patrick will have to move to Boston, despite the upheaval this will entail for the boy. Meanwhile, Lee’s presence in town inspires hushed whispers and sidelong glances from everyone he encounters, and a key flashback eventually reveals why he refuses to stick around for long.
Anyone who saw Lonergan’s previous films is already familiar with his gift (honed by his years as a playwright) for writing dialogue that’s at once intensely naturalistic and unforgettably lacerating. A scene between Lee and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) turns a simple invitation to lunch into a spiraling crescendo of mutual guilt and recrimination that’s as harrowing as any torture sequence ever filmed. The integration of the flashbacks, and the way that they impinge upon the present, shows that Lonergan is now evolving into a first-rate director, too. And he never forgets the essential absurdity of life, even during its grimmest moments—this is the sort of film in which a heated argument about funeral arrangements coexists with a comical effort to remember where the damn car is parked. We can’t necessarily escape our demons, but we can endure them, and reach out to others. Sometimes, that has to be enough.