“Manchester by the Sea”
Kenneth Lonergan’s appreciation for and apprehension of music is made lustrously clear in his new family melodrama Manchester by the Sea. Not only does he movingly and thoughtfully use classic Baroque works by Handel and Albinoni (and the soothing tones of Ella Fitzgerald) to enhance his drama in certain scenes, but the very images through which he transmits that drama are carried by an inherent musical lilt. Lonergan is better known as a writer than a director – he is an accomplished playwright and, in addition to those of each of the three movies he directed himself, has written the scripts for other films, including Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York – but his artistry in directing this film (I have not yet seen You Can Count On Me and Margaret) is manifest and expansive. Beyond his mastery of the formally classical crafts and techniques he employs – his fixed compositions, broad establishing shots, clean movements, bright lighting, inconspicuous editing, credible dialogue and performances, definitive narrative structure, measured pace in unfolding the story, et cetera – there is a spark of ardour and originality to what we see on the screen, and it carries all the force of emotion and strength of substance that any film artist could bring to his or her work.
Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as the sullen handyman Lee Chandler in a large town in Massachusetts, just south of Boston, whose brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), in the thrall of a chronic heart condition, suffers a heart attack and dies in their home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, a few hours’ drive north along the coast. Lee is left with making all the arrangements for Joe’s funeral and afterwards, most importantly looking after his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). To Lee’s alarm, he learns that he has been designated Patrick’s guardian by Joe in his will; the prevailing crisis of the remainder of the plot is the tug between Lee, who is anxious to leave Manchester-by-the-Sea as soon as is proper, and Patrick, who is adamant that he will stay just where he is and continue his life in its current vein. Subsequent scenes survey the scope and dimensions of that vein: Patrick is comfortably set in a group of friends, the devoted lead guitarist of a comically earnest high school garage band, and is self-satisfied in the attention he draws from his prettier classmates, including Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov) and Silvie (Kara Hayward, Hedges’s entrancing costar in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom).
But the repelling force that drives Lee seems far more vigorous, and runs far deeper, than the forces of attraction that pull at Patrick. The central story of Lee’s character revolves around events that took place before the start of the film’s plot, and is revealed to us in abrupt flashbacks that throw light on his character’s earlier, elliptical scenes. Lonergan’s course of action through dealing with Joe’s death are just the plot machinations that lead us to the pricklier core of the story, of earlier grief and deeper trauma. It’s from this core that Lonergan’s film lets out its howls of agony and despair, and it reverberates above the otherwise restrained storytelling throughout the rest of the film.
Which is not to say that the rest of the movie would not be interesting and wholly captivating on its own, nor even that it isn’t entertaining in its minor and surprising ways. What struck viewers in both the screenings of Manchester by the Sea I attended were the glaring contrasts between the tragic and painful underpinning of the characters’ situations and the near-absurd minute and trivial events and processes of mundane everyday life they must continue to endure and act out. It drew hearty laughter each time. Anyone who has undergone grief recognises the grotesque manner in which ordinary life and all its difficulties, surprises, challenges, and felicitations must continue; Lonergan’s brilliance is in deftly devising and subtly highlighting those moments in both his script and direction to bring that terrible recognition to wonderful fruition.
It wouldn’t be at all incorrect to say that Lonergan brings life – the pain and the joy of it, in the inexorable beauty that attends the work of true artists – to a story pivoting on death and loss as a circumstance, nor that he brings it to all facets of his magnificent film-making. One could go on about the canniness of his structuring and editing, the grace of his wondrously wide-set and far-reaching visual compositions, or even the precision of ostensible minutiae like his editing, but I suppose I’ll stick with the crowd and focus on two exquisite elements of this work: the lead performance of Casey Affleck, and the supporting performance of Michelle Williams as his remarried ex-wife Randi.
Lee bears such a thick and burdensome sediment of pain that it’s all but suppressed his entire emotional capacity. For fear of bringing up vast feelings that could easily overwhelm and quite possibly even destroy him, Lee declines to feel anything at all. To lead what’s left of his life, coloured with bleak sorrow and regret, he relies on a limping intuition, supported by an intellect and a rationalism (such as it is) but absent any finer or deeper points of emotion, and Affleck embodies this with a stirring opacity. He focuses his technique stunningly, while opening it up to the representations of darker psychological recesses. His performance bears the quality that attends those of the greatest movie stars, which is that of being ineffably interesting: even when Lee is doing nothing, in a moment of idleness, Affleck gives the impression of a fluid and unresting inner life.
Michelle Williams does the same, but in an entirely distinct and distinctive way. Randi’s separation from Lee is linked to the earlier trauma we witness in flashback, and when she shows up again in the film’s plot, she wishes to make amends for her mistakes and to re-forge their connection, impossible as it may be to rebuild it completely. Williams gives off a shrewd glimmer, even when her character is as apparently unexceptional as Randi. She also brings a jolt of emotional immediacy whenever she steps into a shot, and Lonergan puts that jolt to thrilling use in a nearly unbelievable scene near the end of the film, when Randi tries to talk and get through to Lee. Her halting outpouring and his choked apologies and protestations make for the most breathlessly and intimately wretched conversation in any film one is likely to see this year.
The exchange fits in with the schema of Lee returning from the edge of an existential abyss in slow and uncertain steps. He is by no means healed by the close of the film – no audience member could doubt that he will never properly heal – but, through being forced to connect again with someone close, he begins to thaw the chilled state he’s been frozen in for years. Lonergan’s film is classical in form, rather like the music it quotes, but his relation to and presentation of his creation is entirely modern in substance. There is the classical notion of visual symbolism to the story – consider the dazzling establishing shot late in the film, which drew a gasp from the audience, of the night sky above the houses on the shore, showing that, even in its moments of darkness, life in this town can contain some light and something of a shimmering beauty to keep you connected to it – and the traditional poignant close after the character has achieved some revelation and development (though slow and uncertain), but Lonergan acknowledges that the wounds he tends to will never close, and the sense of peace with which the film concludes is not relief, but a peace of exhaustion and compromise. One must go on with one’s life and reconnect not for resounding moral and emotional reasons, but because disconnect breeds disconnect and one can go only so far alone before never being able to return.