Dark and Stormy Waters

Manchester by the Sea
(USA, 137 min.)
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol
Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.
Photo by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Manchester by the Sea is a beast of burdens. There’s enormous weight to this new film by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me and the embattled Margaret) and it’s a lot to bear. The film, painful and often authentic with its life-like emotions and hunger, crushes and moves a viewer. In the vein of Todd Field’s raw and devastating New England nightmare In the Bedroom, Manchester by the Sea shows how grief cripples, transforms, and ultimately heals a person.

The film is a sombre character study that centres upon Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck in an awfully subdued performance. Lee’s a deadbeat drunk who drifts through life as a janitor in the Boston area. Moping around the building, changing light bulbs, and unclogging toilets before heading off to the bar to drink his paycheck dry, Lee’s life is one of revolving hangovers. It’s also one of constant penance as Lonergan gradually reveals through the film’s fractured screenplay.

Lee confronts the ghosts of his past when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies unfairly young as a result of congestive heart failure. Unbeknownst to Lee, Joe leaves his brother as the guardian of his son Patrick, played by newcomer Lucas Hedges. Patrick is a typical teenager who speaks in monosyllabic dialogue while his thumbs can’t seem to shut up with whomever he’s typing away at on his smartphone.

Manchester by the Sea thrusts audiences into the cold waters of grief as Patrick comes to terms with his father’s death and Lee struggles to let go of the past by accepting his new role as father figure. Scenes play out by focussing on mundane and minute details, like how Patrick fixates on frozen chicken after learning that his father needs to chill until his burial, while Lee broods silently with a beer and sullen expression. Manchester says a lot without really saying anything and the punctuations of dark, pensive silence are wrought with loaded emotion.

At the centre of the film is Lee’s relationship with his ex-wife Randi. Michelle Williams plays Randi and steals Manchester by the Sea despite having fairly little screen time. Williams appears in only a handful of scenes that mostly fill in the backstory and illuminate Lee’s despair, but the selective cutting between the solemn Lee and his once-joyful home life with Randi helps the audience understand and sympathise with the inaccessible Lee as his life disintegrates on one hand and finds light in the other. Williams is exceptionally good in the film’s climactic scene in which Randi confronts Lee and seeks forgiveness. The heartbreaking scene cuts hard as Williams’ performance conveys how deeply grief fractures relationships with the ones we love most.

Affleck’s performance, on the other hand, wears the solemn face of guilt and self-loathing as Lee refuses to forgive himself for the mistakes of his past. The detached character is very difficult and refuses to let the audience in, and Affleck’s blank, restrained performance keep one at a distance. Hedges, however, provides the same cathartic balance that Williams does as Patrick’s presence compensates for Lee’s coldness.

Lonergan’s screenplay is very talky despite the pepperings of profound silence. Manchester adopts the salty vernacular of this small town as F-bombs drop and folks babble in pointless, circular conversations as they deal with death. Chatty ramblings create convincing relationships between the characters, who feel more like humans or subjects of a doc that observes life in small town America rather than fictional creations. There are times when Manchester’s fixation on creating natural slice-of-life moments rings false though, particularly when Lonergan injects awkward black humour into the mix. For example, one devastating flashback scene sees Randi lifted into an ambulance and Manchester easily spends a minute watching the paramedics struggle with the gurney as the legs beneath the stretcher keep falling loose whenever they try to hoist the patient. Ditto the recurring touch of pointlessly trailing random passersby as they walk down the street. When Manchester succeeds with its authenticity, it’s brilliant; however, it’s coy, false, and frustrating whenever it misses the mark.

The dark and stormy waters of Manchester by the Sea are best in Lonergan’s depiction of small town life and in the pain of loss than hangs over the film. Haunting music by Canadian composer Lesley Barber underscores both the overwhelming air of grief and the strong sense of small town character that defines the film. Manchester by the Sea might be the last thing one wants to experience after a long day of work, but the pain is worth it.

Manchester by the Sea is now in theatres.