Densely absorbing and richly enveloping, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a melancholic yet undeniably human portrait of grief, and how its overwhelming nature can manifest itself into not only our hearts, but our environments. This potent drama is as much about place as it is people. The frosty, wiry-tree-laden suburb is as haunting and atmospheric as a horror feature, yet the only scares here come from the ramifications of our actions, and how their shadows linger through the streets we once walked; the waters we once sailed. The past hangs heavy in this world, and as such leaves visible scars.
Casey Affleck delivers a revolutionary performance – one which will likely (and rightfully) claim him that Academy Award – as Lee Chandler; a Bostonian janitor rendered by introverted solitude. Living in a shady underground apartment block at his place of employment, he spends his time fixing petty leaks and nagging electrical issues before sinking many pints, leaving riled and weary-eyed. However it isn’t long before his singular reality is altered when he is called back to his home town of Manchester (some 9omin drive) where his beloved elder brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a life-ending heart attack. From here Lee’s world dramatically changes as he finds himself victim to Joe’s will and is favoured as son Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) legal guardian.
As he showcased so expertly with the beautiful ruin that was Margaret (2011), Lonergan’s thematic mastery lies in what goes unsaid. Here he provides sobering and brutal prose, laden with lashings of brittle humour and wry wisdom, but the manner in which his cast carry his narrative physically is what separates Manchester by the Sea from your more traditional drama. The emotional and psychological detachment of Lee makes for a startling protagonist; he is stilted by silence, constantly raising barriers between those who care about him, and those who must make the attempt to during this traumatic period. Long vacant glances are paired with heavy-set shoulders, profound verbal pauses climax with finite responses. For Lee, the passing of his brother isn’t what consumes, it is the unrelenting wave of harsh life which has forced him to fight for breath with each cruel crash.
Lonergan brilliantly enables the anguish and sorrow of his characters to build like a feverish crescendo, and whilst his film doesn’t have “that scene” as many will expect, it has explosions of deft humanity which are remarkably powerful in their subtlety. Lee’s turmoil unveils in random spasms of uncharacteristic rage – be they alcohol-induced or not. Like an Swiss watch, the cogs and gears of his psyche and demeanour delicately click until one component gives out, and then they entire system fails.
It isn’t just Affleck who turns in exquisite work, either. The endlessly overlooked Kyle Chandler is dynamic and commanding as Joe – his narrative told through flashbacks which fail to provide audiences a clear distinction of continuity. One minute Joe is alive and well, drinking with his brother as they play ping-pong into the late hours, the next he is cold and nude inside a morgue with seemingly no obvious cuts between such alarming contrasts. Michelle Williams is equally excellent, delivering yet another powerhouse of taut emotional bruising and gusto. She plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi who serves as a constant metaphorical reminder of how the movements we make, and the decisions we decide have consequences far greater than we’d care to believe.
Newcomer Lucas Hedges is a sheer diamond in the rough; another tremendous find who’ll rightfully deserve a steady career in this title’s wake. The interplay between Lee and Patrick is supercharged with dramatic clout, yet it never undermines the fragility of their relationship, and indeed how in their many differences are undeniable similarities. You’d be inclined to expect Patrick to be a whiny, tear-soaked teenager having just lost his father, but Lonergan has the respectfulness to paint modernised youth with broader brushstrokes. He is a handful; selfish, opinionated and demanding, but capable of deep sincerity and warmth. When these shades bleed onto the palette, they do so with the truest vibrancy.
Manchester by the Sea is an extremely textured and measured motion picture; it offers a dexterous understanding of the complexities of grieving thanks to a bespoke realism often removed in favour of emotional manipulation. Lonergan’s latest earns your sorrow, and through the unmistakable rhythms of human conversation and influence, leaves you feeling both stirred and grounded by curtain call.
Manchester by the Sea opens in UK cinemas on Friday, 13th January.