Rewind: Review of “Manchester by the Sea”

by Michael Henley

There is a scene halfway through Manchester by the Sea that holds a key piece of the movie’s power. It’s a flashback set in a police station, where Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is being interviewed by three cops. He tells a story—something unimaginably horrible. It’s the very reason he’s here. As he tells it, he seems to shrink before our very eyes in a mostly unbroken single take. His eyes are sunken. His voice is haunted. It’s the voice of a man who thought he had a solid grip on his flaws, but he was wrong. And they conspired with fate on this cold, dark New England night, and together they have led Lee inexorably into tragedy. It is heartbreaking.

That moment is maybe the second best bit of acting in Affleck’s career. Later, we see what tops it. There is another extraordinary scene, also featuring Affleck, this time partnered with Michelle Williams as his ex-wife, Randi. That both halves of this couple have been touched by the same horrific events is, I suppose, not a spoiler. It hangs like a cloud over every scene, even long before we learn what it was. But in this scene, as Randi desperately pleas for some sort of contact with her husband, he stops. He says four unforgettable words, which I won’t reveal, but Affleck’s delivery is shatteringly poignant. They are deceptively simple, those words, but Affleck provides a flash of a raw nerve of pure, unfiltered despair. It provides a gut-wrenching capper to a film that has meditated on things in Boston fashion: by turns direct, self-effacing and profound.

Manchester by the Sea is a movie of such beautiful offhand moments. It’s a movie about grief, and guilt, but not the movie versions of those emotions. No, it’s about the real stuff and how they coil around us in surprising ways. How humans can process pain not just into simple-minded outrage and desolation but also complex, contradictory things: confusion and violence, numbness and more than a little low-key humor. How tempers can flare and then subside within moments. How the details of planning a funeral around a table at breakfast time can be slightly surreal and soul-crushing. How the rituals of fishing and boating can provide a necessary rhythm in rudderless times. How every emotion seems heightened or lessened or just out of whack, and in a certain way, almost anything goes. Some people, to be sure, don’t grieve this way. They stay controlled and on track. But some people—a lot of people–do act like this.

Lee, when we meet him, is a janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, quietly reeling from a trauma that the film, in its own circular way, will take its time to find the right moment to approach and share with us. He lives in a tiny room belowground, where a dingy window shows the foot traffic outside. He has literally buried himself alive. When he is informed of his brother’s death, he goes upstate to Beverly, and slowly learns he has been named as the guardian of Patrick, his teenaged nephew. The key relationship soon becomes that between Lee and Patrick, but this is not a story about a sad sack redeemed by parenthood. We’ve seen that. This is about two men who don’t really quite understand each other, who are ill-equipped for each other, and who try to force some bonds and then stumble upon others.

One quietly well-observed scene occurs when Patrick and Lee come home to Patrick’s now very very empty house. “Can I invite some of my friends over?” says Patrick, who also prods his uncle to order a pizza. In a normal movie, this would be a beat about denial, or selfishness. Here it sets the table for a scene between Patrick, his two friends and his girlfriend Silvie (Kara Hayward), who sincerely honor the memory of his dad and then they organically veer off into an argument about the merits (or lack thereof) of Star Trek. “I can’t believe we’re talking about this,” says Silvie, bewildered. But they are, and it’s not a sitcom laugh or an ironic touch or anything like that. It’s a sober evocation of how weird the grieving process can be.

Later, Patrick “asks” Lee if it’s okay if Silvie stays over. You know, as in stay over stay over. “Dad always let me.” Lee shrugs and the two men share an awkward silence. “Is this where I tell you to use a condom?” Lee finally blurts out. He’s not making a joke. He’s not worried about his nephew. He’s just admitting he has no idea how to behave and he’s just going with the flow. We see Lee in flashbacks when he was full of life. Now, nothing.

At its heart, this is a character drama about a character—Lee—who has given up. Strangers whisper things about Lee Chandler behind his back (“Is that him?”) and you get a sense that he imagines that as his existence every day. One night at a bar he picks a fight with two yuppies just because they looked in his direction for too long. One of the movie’s little masterstrokes is the way it matter-of-factly dips in and out of flashbacks not as dreamy reveries but as mostly matter-of-fact “straight” scenes, because for Lee, these little moments weigh so heavily they might as well be happening right in front of him.

Lee is not a bad man, at all (note the lovely little moment where he swears in anger in front of a doctor and nurse, then takes a beat and apologizes to them). But Lee is a beaten man, and when Patrick enlists him one night to distract the mother of his other girlfriend (long story), it’s a defining fact that Lee literally has nothing to say. He sits in silence. He has no opinions, no judgments, no dreams, no cares. He just exists, makes plans just to get through the day, and he waits to die. That he is depressed is a fair thing to say. That the movie makes his perspective sympathetic is a delicate balancing act—most movies about depression try to shake characters out of it with broad gestures and colorful wackiness. This one opens the possibility of hope mainly though intense understanding.

Affleck’s performance is critical to this story: too many actors would be so removed they’d make the guy a non-entity. Affleck plays him with an awareness and intelligence that makes Lee master of a self-imposed hell. He makes the story touching by not ever seeming to reach for tears. There’s something so sad in the way he quietly says “No thank you” when a pass is made at him, as if already mourning the opportunity but also being trapped by his new nature. There has been Oscar buzz lately for his performance, and it’s deserved, because he does something unthinkable in Oscar season: he creates a character that has an illness, rather than an illness that happens to have picked a human mascot.

For so much of Manchester by the Sea, I marveled at how well Kenneth Lonergan (who also made the wonderful You Can Count On Me) has a handle on his story. I loved the restraint in a scene where both Lee and Patrick look at a collection of three picture frames, without any lazy insert shot to show what they contain. Or the way that the marriage between Patrick’s birth mother (Gretchen Mol) and her husband (Matthew Broderick) is spelled out entirely through uneasy asides. The performances are all gorgeously rich. Lonergan direction evokes the lonely nights so well you can feel the wind ruffling through everyone’s hair. And I liked how consistently he struck a tone that wasn’t quite comic, wasn’t quite heavy dramatic, but was just…well…life-like.

But other notes aren’t quite as successful. The dynamics between Patrick and his girlfriends don’t ring true and strain for laughs. One moment of dramatic heft is overscored and overedited to the point of distraction. Some scenes of dialogue make their point and then continue self-indulgently. Some editing might have helped. And Michelle Williams is so wonderful and heartfelt in her minutes of screen time you wish the film had slightly more room for her. But then, maybe that’s part of the point.

For many, Manchester by the Sea has been hailed as a great film. I’m not quite as sure of its greatness—I think it’s a little too scruffy and cluttered for that. But it contains greatness consistently throughout, and Lonergan’s achievement is no less impressive for it. Whether Lonergan has or hasn’t made a masterpiece is beside the point, anyway—he’s made a work that is affecting and heartachingly human.