Michelle Williams recently reported that Kenneth Lonergan was in tears while directing at least one pivotal scene in Manchester by the Sea. The actress shared this detail with a touch of awe, noting that she’d never had that experience on a movie set before (and Williams is not exactly reticent to sign on for films that deliver emotional gut punches). Having watched the new film, I have a difficult time imagining any other reaction from Lonergan, and not only because he was watching the film’s most wrenching scene play out before his watering eyes. Overall, Manchester by the Sea betrays such empathy and depth of feeling from its creator that it is almost inconceivable that he could have any other reaction than weeping and grieving and colliding with himself right alongside the characters.
The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, who is introduced as a handyman attending to issues large and small in a series of crummy apartments. Though the interactions are simple, he exudes a sense of a person who is withdrawn and hesitant. As the film plays out, the cause of that wounded bearing becomes gradually, painfully clear. Working in Boston, he is called to his hometown on Cape Ann when his brother (Kyle Chandler) is hospitalized. By the time he arrives, the brother has died, and Lee enters into the complicated aftermath of that, including unexpected responsibilities looking after his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lonergan intercuts that story with flashbacks that reveal how Lee has arrived at his own dejected state.
As was the case in Lonergan’s wonderful film directing debut, You Can Count On Me, he demonstrates a startling capacity for pulling the profound out of the mundane and finding the wry humor within sadness. Lonergan knows that people in the real world don’t often have the luxury of grand moments and epiphanies. Hard-hitting pain never truly goes away, and even wounds that heal leave scars that exact their own anguish. The drama is understated, even when the film veers towards enormous tragedy. The world doesn’t stop to survey damage. It keeps moving. And the best anyone can hope for is for the ache to recede enough to keep moving forward, timid step by timid step.
This artistic philosophy leads to resonantly emotional work without overt manipulations. It is also a gift to actors, at least those who prefer control to raging against the dying of the klieg lights. Affleck is a man carrying a burden so heavy that it smothers him slowly, but he doesn’t indulge in the kind of twitchiness another actor might use as a way to signal the troubles beneath a deceptively calm facade. Williams plays her big moments with the sort of shattering conviction that would be expected of her. She also rounds out the performance by bringing a deeply live-in quality to all of the other scenes, deftly sidestepping the trap of letting the character become a mere piece of the drama’s machinery. Truly, there’s strong work throughout, as Lonergan’s attention to detail means even the side characters are given just room to feel real, even relative throwaway roles like the hockey coach played by Tate Donovan or the girlfriend’s mother played by Heather Burns.
Manchester by the Sea avoids flash and catharsis, because both of those are hard to come by outside of fiction. Instead, Lonergan drives it towards a quality that exists in abundance, but is elusive in storytelling, especially film storytelling. He seeks and finds truthfulness. That’s what makes Manchester by the Sea bracing and unforgettable.