Manchester by the Sea: A heartrending portrait of grief and depression
Manchester by the Sea is a heartrending portrait of grief and depression. This doesn't preclude the film from being occasionally funny as hell; nor does it mean that it’s in love with its own sadness, as many other prestige films of this ilk seem to be.
During a pivotal and tragic scene in the film, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan makes a point of taking a brief time-out from the devastation to show us the First Responders struggling to fold the wheels of a gurney. They fumble about with the gurney a couple of times, and for a second, the tragedy is momentarily forgotten; because goddammit that gurney is impossible and can't one little thing go right?
This is the wisdom of Manchester: Like time itself, life's endless parade of comedies and inconveniences pauses for nobody. This theme is elegantly woven into the tapestry of its offbeat plot. Although the characters and set-ups are familiar (and would amount to workmanlike in far less deft hands), the execution of the story is as unpredictable as existence itself, enhanced by flawless editing, which, at a deliberate pace, peels back the layers of its authentic characters. Manchester has an unpretentious technical prowess, with a keen ear for the rhythm of friends and family loving each other and busting each other's balls, but who struggle to communicate when words fail to articulate the enormity of their guilt and neurosis. This prowess assures Kenneth Lonergan's reputation as an artist who, is first and foremost, a diligent chronicler of Everyman and Everywoman.
After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), handyman Lee Chandler (a man who would choose a bar fight over the company of an interested woman) is tasked with taking care of his gregarious 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Forced to return to Manchester-by-the-Sea to be guardian for his nephew; Lee has to confront the painful reverberations of a mistake that estranged him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and prompted him to disappear from his hometown.
The actors are astonishing. But as the pathos and story are so reliant on its protagonist, it's up to Casey Affleck as a permanently guilt-ridden, grumpy, fundamentally unlikable janitor to make it all work. And lord, does he deliver a powerhouse performance. It's the kind of subdued, studied performance – never demanding your love, always holding your attention and provoking your fascination – that Robert De Niro would've delivered in the 70s. He has the perfect screen partner in Lucas Hedge's spirited teenager Patrick; their shared grief paradoxically putting them at odds with each other as often as it strengthens their familial bond. And although he shares very few scenes with Michelle Williams, when they're together the frame crackles with intensity and the weight of a long storied history. It helps of course that Williams is so gifted that, even when given very little, she can break your heart in under a minute. Kyle Chandler doesn't get many showy scenes as the steady older brother, but his embodiment of simple decency is just as moving (and is just as vital to Manchester's DNA) as Affleck's volcanic guilt and pain.
Even if Manchester were not so technically accomplished and beautifully acted, it would still stand as a unique work, simply because you get the ineffable sense that the director has experienced himself what he's depicting on screen – it's as personal as a handwritten poem to a loved one. The cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes, as understatedly gorgeous as everything else about Manchester, also deserves a mention; the pale wintry tableaus of its Massachusetts setting are stunning.
All praise aside, this is a difficult and challenging watch that will not inspire easy adoration in the same way as something like La La Land. By the end, it's clear that Manchester has been seriously asking of the viewer if we can ever be more than the sum total of our disappointments and stupid, sometimes catastrophic, failings. Manchester, in its quiet dignity, tells us that there is no answer to that – there's only another day.