Kenneth Lonergan makes films about the things that don’t go away. In 2000’s You Can Count On Me, the sudden orphaning of young siblings helps fashion an unsolvable divide between the two in adult life, while in Margaret, which lingered undistributed for years while director and studio fought over the final cut, witnessing a fatal accident sends Anna Paquin’s carefree teenage life spiralling in new, frustrating directions. His third feature as writer-director, Manchester by the Sea, part of Amazon Studios’ effort to chase indie respectability, is Lonergan’s most refined work yet, a restrained but movingly complex portrait of tragedy’s never-ending fallout, executed in the film-maker’s distinctive emotional key.
Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, an internally coiled loner living out a one-room existence as an apartment block janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts, called back to his seaside home when his brother (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler, a blackbelt in emoting small-town decency) dies suddenly from cardiac arrest. There, the taciturn Lee, for whom almost every conversation seems like a kind of trial, and small talk is almost comically near-impossible, must take care of his brother’s affairs, including, to his amazement, legal guardianship of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose mother, a reformed alcoholic, is out of the picture. Amidst the logistics of bereavement, Lee is forced to face his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and the inconceivably horrible catastrophe that shattered their family life and forced his exile from the town.
Affleck bears the ashen, scorched earth expression of a man already hallowed out by several lifetimes’ worth of sorrow. He’s a walking black hole. Manchester is earning descriptions that toast its tear-jerking power, and Affleck’s performance has, inevitably, been the subject of Oscar chatter, but this story lays out its feeling in a different register to what audiences may expect. There is little showstopper hysteria for the Academy reel: no grand speeches or tearful catharsis. Here grief and pain find expression in silence and evasion. People linger in doorways, unsure of themselves, and conversations don’t so much end as evaporate gently and awkwardly into the air. Characters exist in the gap between what they can say and what they would like to be able to say, between the cards they need and the ones they have been dealt.
That said, it’s not a total downer. It’s actually funny in surprising ways. Lonergan’s commitment to the realities of how people process the disorientation of loss also means an ear for the everyday way they just get on with things. Patrick is grieving his father, sure, but he’s also a horny teenager with friends and a life, the back-and-forth of Lee ferrying him between his two girlfriends touched with lived-in double-act weariness. The clipped, ever so slightly artificial, way they – and others around them – interact gives away Lonergan’s theatrical beginnings. Viewers familiar with his earlier work will recognise other habits: regular establishing shots of the melancholic shoreline, appearances from Lonergan fav Matthew Broderick and the director himself, and a weakness for orchestral and choral scoring, the only part of the production that aggravates. It is meant, one supposes, to deepen the sense of tragedy, but it’s often distracting and holds the rawness of the moment at arm’s length, like in a crucial police interview room scene where Lee confesses to an unforgiveable moment of thoughtlessness.
Still, it’s a minor blemish on an impressively intimate piece of work. Typical of Lonergan’s moral vision, there is little in the way of resolution or lessons learned. Resistant to sentiment’s soothing release, Manchester by the Sea is a uniquely convincing drama about the incompleteness of the human heart. Conor Smyth