Powerful, emotional filmmaking that leaves a scar, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is heartbreaking yet somehow heartening, a film that just wallops you with its honesty, its authenticity and its access to despair.
Writer-director Lonergan, best known for 2000’s Oscar-nominated “You Can Count on Me” and the more recent “Margaret,” has a phenomenal ear for intimate, authentic dialogue, for how people really talk, not how movies think they do.
Unafraid of large passions yet anchored in searingly realistic performances by stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, “Manchester” conveys such an exact sense of how life is lived, of the ways wrenching tragedy can coexist with off-handed humor, that it’s hard at times to remember that this is a written piece and not a real situation captured on the fly.
At its core a story about the vulnerability and necessity of family, about the pain it can put us through and what helps us bear that, “Manchester” benefits from Lonergan’s multiple gifts, by having a director with complete understanding of his own material and the confidence to allow it to take its time building and playing out.
“Manchester’s” structure is involving and intricate, fluidly intercutting unannounced flashbacks with the current narrative as the story goes back and forth between then and now in a way that enhances the heft of both sides of the timeline.
Warmly shot by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes in the Cape Ann area north of Boston where it takes place, “Manchester” opens with a charming vignette of two men and a boy taking a summer excursion on the family fishing boat, the Claudie Marie, in the waters outside their hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea.
The two men are the Chandler brothers, unmistakably close, with the older Joe (Kyle Chandler) at the wheel and the younger Lee (Affleck) occupied gently teasing his preteen nephew, Patrick. It is a fine, genial moment, but the next scene reveals it to be not the present but the unrecoverable past.
For what editor Jennifer Lame cuts to is a series of bleak wintry scenes in Quincy, a suburb south of Boston, where we now see Lee Chandler at work as a janitor/handyman, unplugging toilets, hooking up electricity and in general keeping the human race at a considerable distance.
Affleck’s quietly ferocious performance, his willingness to submerge himself into this character to an almost frightening extent, allows us to see how wholly cut off Lee is, practically a ghost in peoples’ lives. He lives an almost monastic existence, watching sports on TV in a sparsely furnished room, ignoring women and going to bars only to pick fights with the unwary.
Truly a lost soul, Lee is almost unrecognizable as the man goofing around on the Claudie Marie. But before we find out what caused this dramatic change, Lee’s phone rings and what he’s told pushes him into immediate action.
The call is from a hospital near Manchester: Older brother Joe has had a heart attack. As a flashback to the day Joe and his cantankerous family, including troubled wife Elise (a fine Gretchen Mol), were told about Joe having congestive heart disease underlines, this does not come as a complete surprise. Though he does not get to the hospital before Joe dies, Lee takes it upon himself to go up to Manchester to tell now 15-year-old high school student Patrick (an excellent Lucas Hedges) about his father’s death. With fractious behavior clearly running in the family, Lee and self-involved teen Patrick no sooner see each other than they are at each other’s throats in a series of verbal encounters so hostile a bystander (a cameo by Lonergan himself) cracks, “Great parenting.”
A look at Joe’s will intensifies this relationship. In a carefully planned stratagem executed without so much as a hint to Lee, Joe has named his brother to be Patrick’s guardian, a scenario that shocks both uncle and nephew.
With a fully engaged teenage life, including a band (amusingly named the Stentorians) and two girlfriends, Patrick point blank refuses to move down to Quincy with Lee. And Lee, it becomes clear as soon as he sets foot in Manchester, has a past that made him notorious in the town and would make returning anathema.
That past involves his ex-wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams in a performance that is exceptional even by her standards. Going toe-to-toe with Affleck, who slow burns with agonized, agonizing intensity, Williams plays her handful of scenes with a level of fearlessness and raw vulnerability that will tear your heart out.
At home with deep, almost operatic emotions and willing to join them to that persistent strain of unmistakable humor, “Manchester by the Sea” reaffirms Lonergan’s position as one of our most daring and perceptive writer-directors, determined to confront large questions about the pain life causes and the degree to which it is survivable, if it is survivable at all. You can’t ask more from a filmmaker, or a film, than that.
MPAA rating: R, for language throughout and some sexual content.
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.
Playing Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles.
Critic’s Choice. “Manchester by the Sea.” Powerful, emotional filmmaking that leaves a scar, Kenneth Lonergan’s drama starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams is both heartbreaking and heartening, a film that just wallops you with its honesty, its authenticity and its access to despair. - Kenneth Turan