Cinema is a multifarious mistress, just as capable of empty inanity as it is of affective profundity. When a film is able to bridge the gap between truth and artifice by presenting a story on a human scale with almost incomprehensible emotional stakes — while maintaining a genuine sense of grounding in the world in which we all live — audiences should take notice. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is the rare movie that transmutes its audience’s emotional preconceptions by taking them somewhere they’ve been before (or at least a place they recognize) without degenerating into manipulative melodrama. This is a film that respects its audience’s experience and intelligence. Honesty is perhaps the greatest of all virtues, and Lonergan, by crafting a soul-crushingly earnest story populated by fully realized and painfully relatable characters, has conveyed one of the most heartrendingly honest portrayals of humanity to grace the screen in recent memory.
With his third feature, playwright-turned-filmmaker Lonergan has delivered a masterwork in no uncertain terms. His writerly background has served him especially well, as he orchestrates an intricate narrative structure while still managing the story’s the foreground character development, a feat few contemporary filmmakers seem capable of achieving. Manchester focuses on emotionally crippled anti-hero Lee Chandler — the modern filmscape is replete with protagonists who could be described as such. But Lonergan’s meticulous scripting and Casey Affleck’s extraordinary performance take this tired trope and turn it into a work of breathtaking beauty. Playing the part of Lee, a Boston janitor with a short fuse and a suspiciously absent family, Affleck conveys a simmering intensity that is constantly on the verge of erupting, a result of tribulations revealed through Lonergan’s complex, almost literary flashback structure.
When the abrupt death of his brother leaves Lee with more to think about than his own self-pity, the layers of his personal tragedy are slowly made clear, rendered all the more unsettling by the sudden responsibility of caring for his effectively orphaned teen nephew, Patrick. Played with a pithy blend of adolescent cockiness and insecurity by Lucas Hedges, Patrick provides the perfect counterpoint to Lee’s self-destructive tendencies, a foil that humanizes a character whose backstory becomes increasingly less palatable.
If depression can be defined as rage turned inward, Lee’s strained interactions with the characters in his life externalize his internal conflict and bring it into unavoidable centrality. In planning the mundane details of his brother’s burial, arranging for the guardianship of his nephew and confronting an ex-wife he’d just as soon never see again, the dark recesses of Lee’s character are illuminated through his responses to a larger world that needs him to be more emotionally present than his sadness will allow.
There are no weak performances in this film. Affleck and Hedges carry the weight of the narrative, but are supported ably throughout. Kyle Chandler embodies Lee’s deceased brother, Joe (present only in flashback), with a sense of naturalism that belies his character’s basic plot function, as does C.J. Wilson in the role of the brothers’ lifelong friend, George. But the real standout in the supporting cast is Michelle Williams, scintillating as Lee’s ex, Randi. A climactic scene in which the two confront the lingering emotions left unresolved following their unspeakably tragic split is a masterpiece of understatement and a remarkable example of what two actors can accomplish through inflection and body language alone when flowery dialogue is left on the cutting room floor.
Manchester balances its pathos with a heavy dose of black humor, augmented by its setting. The central cast are all definitive Boston Irish Catholics, but their multidimensional shading belies any stereotypical overtones that such a designation might imply. When Lee and Patrick bust each others’ chops, it’s impossible to overlook the deep sense of loss and grief underlying their flippancy. It’s also a regional film in more ways than culture. Lonergan’s visual cues are elaborated upon by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ delicate eye, with coastal New England seascapes transitioning from bucolic to hellish with a subtle shift in lighting. The cold becomes a character, mirroring Lee’s isolation and psychological paralysis as he comes to terms with the life he left behind.
Affleck and Lonergan have created something truly remarkable with Manchester, a thoroughly moving and believable portrait of flawed masculinity and its capacity to inhibit the natural human desire to connect. The film packs one of the most brutal second-act climaxes I’ve ever seen and an ending that refuses to cop out with a contrived catharsis that would undermine its delicate narrative construction. There can be little doubt that both director and star will be nominated for the industry’s highest honors come awards season. In my opinion, any wins they take home will be entirely justified. Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.