Director: Kenneth Lonergan
R | 2h 15min | Drama | 13 January 2017 (UK)
Playing London Film Festival 2016
Though its plot - about a haunted man’s painful hometown return to take on the task of becoming his nephew’s guardian - might sound on paper a one-way ticket to either redemptive melodrama or self-indulgent mopery, Kenneth Lonergan’s (Margaret; You Can Count on Me) third feature as director handily avoids those blind alleys. Like the hugely impressive Margaret, Manchester by the Sea is a eloquent, well-acted and atmospheric study of grief and mourning that is smart and patient enough to never demand your tears. This went down as one of the best movies at the Sundance Film Festival, with an acquisition by Amazon with a firm commitment to an awards season campaign.
The Manchester of title is a small, windy Massachusetts town on the shores of the sea, and it is the ultimate destination of one Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, here giving another strong performance that confirms all the promise he has shown over the last decade (see 2007s The Assassination of Jesse James if you need convincing). When we first see Lee, things don’t look good at all. A janitor for a series of run-down brownstone apartment blocks a few hours drive from his old home town of Manchester, where he hasn’t returned to in years, Lee trudges from room to room fixing busted plumbing and tiling walls, rarely raising his eyes or his voice. His home is a shabby studio which looks like it hasn’t got any light in years. His nights are spent drinking alone in bars, occasionally fighting with someone if he thinks they are casting glances the wrong way. We don’t know why Lee is this withdrawn, but Affleck gives his character enough of a menacing, “not there” edge that we aren’t sure sympathy is the right response…yet. Answers start to come when the primary tragedy behind Lee’s calcified state starts to be revealed through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed with the main narrative, catching us up eventually to the present day. Arresting tension and a sense of foreboding come from this narrative construction.
The main spine of the story emerges when Lee’s spare existence in the present day is suddenly ruptured by the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen only in the flashbacks), which forces him to return to the hometown he abandoned years before. Awaiting him is the unwanted revelation that Joe has made him guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), with a set of financial arrangements designed to allow Lee to continue to live in Manchester, taking over the house and the responsibility of raising Patrick until the kid can inherit. Patrick, for his part, seems more concerned about making sure the family boat, - the place where he and his father and uncle seemed most at peace - is kept running despite its exorbitant cost, and staying put in the town where his friends, hockey team and (two) girlfriends are. He seems as balked at the idea of being Lee’s ward as Lee is at being handed this job.
Thankfully, Lonergan avoids feeding us an overly familiar bonding/redemption narrative, and injects a good deal of welcome black comedy into the proceedings, as Lee and Patrick take fumbling steps to re-acquaint themselves with one another. The two have conflicts, certainly, but these don’t become repetitive and reach irritatingly hysterical levels, and there is interest in seeing how similar they really are. Both men, for example, have exactly the same dry sense of humour, and are naturally drawn to the ocean. Patrick can be a pain in the ass, insensitive to Lee’s situation and ignorantly expectant that he will take over the mundane duties his father did, be it driving him around or giving him money at the drop of a hat. But he’s basically a good kid. Some of the film’s funniest moments come when Lee just sits dumfounded at times as Patrick, without declaration, starts acting like Lee now is the figure who has to approve decisions around the house, whether its friends staying over or what to do about dinner. At one point, Lee blurts out if Patrick is hanging around his bedroom door because he want’s “the speech about condoms”, given one of his many girlfriends is due to come over. Funny though this is, a shade of poignancy hangs over this relationship, based on what we learn Lee was involved in all those years ago, and what he lost.
Lonergan also deserves props for the way he uses all the cinematic power of this Massachusetts location. Manchester is a pretty place to be sure, all neat detached clapboard houses, wood-floored diners and treelined hills in the background. But this is a kind of haunting prettiness in a hard winter, with constant grey skies and streets seemingly empty of people. Characters are constantly exclaiming about the cold, and it looks cold indeed. If the job was to use this singular location to magnify the unfathomable inner turmoil of a man shattered by the consequences of one single mistake, job done. This is a town cold to Lee in more ways than one.
When the emotional hammer does hit, the moment feels earned, thanks to the fine performances and intelligent but uncomplicated writing that works to build up the picture of this man’s place in this town, and how he lost it. When Lee finally encounters his former wife Randi (played by the ever-reliable Michelle Williams), we get one devastating scene of confession and desperate reaching, a development that Lonergan’s screenplay still refuses to allow to be the gateway to a tidy conclusion. It is a shame more dramas don’t have the courage to end in such a fashion.