“An uncle is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.”
So reads the description for Manchester by the Sea, director (and well-known playwright) Kenneth Lonergan’s third film effort, on IMDB. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, the disaffected brother of Joe (Kyle Chandler) and uncle to Joe’s only child Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who returns home from a solitary life in Boston-where he is a disgruntled handyman-to deal with the aftermath of his brother’s death and attempt to sort out a living situation for his nephew.
It sounds like a story I’ve heard before, so while my festival friends counted the film as their most anticipated (and they’re not alone; the film has been receiving major buzz), I shrugged and simply followed them into the theatre. Another story about fathers and sons, stubborn men trying to relate to each other; another story about a reluctant male on the sidelines stepping up and accepting his full potential. Cue inspirational music.
That’s not the movie I ended up seeing. Truthfully, I was floored (and I’m going to have to live down some serious I-told-you-so’s).
Lonergan builds his emotionally staggering story so deftly that I felt, upon it ending, like one of the men Lee sucker punches at one of the many pubs at which he picks fights. The movie is not as concerned with Joe’s death as it is about mourning and, rather than tell a tale of redemption, it presents characters that are satisfied just to settle for getting by, for moments of calm sea.
In fact, the characters seem barely thrown by the death of a close family member, perhaps due to Joe’s diagnosis with a congenital heart problem years earlier, perhaps because they have already witnessed so much pain (as we later learn). Lee approaches his funerary responsibilities as gruffly and mechanically as he does his job at home where he performs menial tasks for apartment tenants; Joe’s death is just something else for him to fix. Meanwhile, Patrick seems anxious for life to just be business as usual. He effortlessly jumps back into the swing of things: courting two girls, playing in his band, and attempting to maintain his father’s boat.
Michelle Williams, in an interview for the film, mentions that Lonergan has “x-ray vision” when it comes to understanding people and this sentiment comes through in the minimal affectation with which the film’s characters are written, without sacrifice of depth. When the two surviving Chandler men are thrown together, rather than Lee softening or Patrick laying off his prickly uncle, a genuine relationship ignites the screen as the two face off–often humorously–to decide their near future.
The beauty of Affleck’s character in particular is that its complexity is not entirely apparent until halfway through the film. Lee’s responses to attempts to communicate with him range from awkwardly laconic to downright hostile. While he seems simply misanthropic, the film offers glimpses of an earlier, playful Lee whose stark contrast in character suggests that an immense emotional rift has occurred.
Lonergan has said that the original script for the film was written chronologically. In contrast, his film is built out of these jumbled chunks of time, which he credits with making the story come together. Though often used to fill in gaps, Lonergan uses flashbacks in a manner that slowly conjures more questions. The film we think we are supposed to be seeing is slowly sidelined by a story far more harrowing.
Initially, scenes from the past show a Lee who lives nearby and is present for important family moments– hospital visits, fishing trips. Consequently, the bond between uncle, nephew, and brother seems strong. When Lee arrives in town to take care of affairs after his brother dies, it soon becomes apparent that he hasn’t been around for some time. He’s surprised to learn that his uncle and aunt have moved and doesn’t even know that Patrick is a member of a hockey team.
The effect produced by the film jumping around in time is the same kind of distancing that Lee employs on those around him. Held at arms length, it is clear to the audience that there is something we’re not being told and until we are, we will have to just put up with the frustrating antagonism of Lee as he lumbers through his unwanted responsibilities.
Lonergan’s flashbacks also examine the relationship of trauma to memory. Each jump back in time could easily just be the audience experiencing Lee’s memories as he is bombarded by them. The film’s initial avoidance of its central locus of pain is not just clever strategy for building tension, it mimics Lee’s personal struggle to stave off his own terrible recollections, to hold the creeping tides off just a little so he doesn’t drown. It is why he moved to Boston. As the film unravels, Lee’s proximity to past trauma renders him undone and the flashbacks become more revealing. When Lee finally makes it to the lawyer’s office to learn he has been appointed as Patrick’s guardian, the truth of his traumatic past is slowly unveiled and colours everything the audience has previously seen.
Though the film maintains its same tone post-flashback, the audience experiences Lonergan’s simple story with new eyes. Grief hovers on the surface; it lingers at every edge, threatens to envelope the entire film and swallow it whole like its protagonist. It becomes so tense you expect something to blow. It is a relief when Lee takes his first swing after the film’s huge revelation; Lonergan has Lee smash a hole through his bedroom window just to let some air into the vacuum of grief he has created.
Something as simple as Lee talking to his ex-wife–Randi, played by Michelle Williams–on the phone is now electric. Without any exposition or scenes together following their shared tragedy, a narrative of their separation has been built in the audience’s mind. The magnitude of what they share is so immense that Lonergan must schedule their first interaction post-revelation over the phone or the film will crack from the impact.
It becomes easier to understand why Lee refuses to live a life surrounded by loved ones or even apartment furnishings. He denies himself everything but three framed pictures, that the audience can only suppose contain shots of each of his three children. These he reverently totes around with him, manifestations of his guilt.
The film earns the emotional power it generates; Lonergan doesn’t shy away from reality in order to maintain emotional momentum. Leaving the funeral parlour with Patrick, Lee takes them the wrong way to find his parked car; paramedics at the scene of a tragic accident struggle to load a stretcher onto an ambulance; Lee and his brother’s coworker awkwardly try to make their way through a conversation with an equally ill at ease doctor and nurse. As Lonergan noted in an interview at Sundance:
I’ve just always been interested in alter naturalism and seeing if you can make real life interesting enough to be dramatic, without enhancing it. Like, could you make a movie or write a play in which there’s no compression of time, there’s no enhanced event, it’s just real life? Would that be interesting enough to watch?
In the hands of someone else, perhaps, these veers from the plot could seem irreverently slapstick, but Lonergan navigates these moments of real humanity with care, transporting a script that could possibly be counted in the realm of tragedy-porn, oscar bait drama into something else entirely: a relatable human experience. No one should ever have to bear the pain Lee carries, but the film makes it clear that it could happen to you. We are forced to come to horrible terms with the possibility that something so large and tragic could be actually mundane and ordinary. Lonergan shows his audience how mundane even death is, especially death.
I feel as though I barely need to mention the acting; the film is carried by a gifted cast who does incredible justice to the character’s Lonergan has written for them. Affleck is able to get so much across despite having little to say; his pain is written all over him without descending into caricature. But it is Williams, who is only present in the film sporadically, that steals the show in a pivotal scene between her and Affleck. Many people are predicting Oscar nods for both of them.
Visually, the film is a treat to watch; cinematographer Jody Lee Lipe captures the beautiful washed out colours of the seaside. Shots of the worn-out docks are testament that anything can endure, no matter the surf that crashes unrelentingly. The sea is ruthless to its inhabitants, as we are reminded by Lee as he details the difficulties of maintaining a boat, but they carry on regardless. While Lee refuses all offers of redemption–despite a point in the film that gestures at a different possibility, cheesily accompanied by Sinatra’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light”–he does not refuse to keep going. Whether this is a sign of hope (he does, after all, find a new apartment with not just one bedroom, but two) or simply another form of self-punishment is not especially important. Lonergan has gifted us with an incredible, haunting film on what it means to live with one’s ghosts.