I’ve been a fan of Kenneth Lonergan’s since seeing his stellar debut, You Can Count on Me. Between that and his much-delayed (but still incredible) follow-up Margaret, Lonergan staked his claim as a low-key, naturalistic director, one whose scripts allowed the characters to speak like real people and let the drama emerge from the real world, rather than be forced into the story by the hand of God (in other words, through the screenwriter’s will). And at first glance, you might think that Manchester By the Sea would seem like something more plot-driven than Lonergan usually does; the premise, which involves a janitor (Casey Affleck) who’s still recovering from his own trauma being forced to become a guardian for his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges), feels like something more “high-concept” than Lonergan would normally do.
And yet, that couldn’t be further from the case. Manchester by the Sea unfolds in its own calm, naturally developing way, so that the plot feels like the developments of life, rather than a plot enforced on the film. More than that, Lonergan lets his actors truly breathe in the roles, allowing scenes to play out for longer than you might expect, luxuriating in silences and thoughtful pauses, and letting the physical presences – the gestures, the looks, the headshakes – speak more than any dialogue possibly could. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Lonergan has some great actors working with his script, of course, but it’s hard to think of a more incredible performance by Casey Affleck than the one he gives here as Lee Chandler. Wounded by his own past, Lee walks through life at a distance, rarely letting anyone see his true thoughts or even come close to connecting with him; he’s quiet, isolated, and doesn’t feel the need to reach out to anyone. Playing a silent, tactiturn character can be hard, but Affleck does it beautifully, occasionally letting a bit of Lee’s pain shine through when he’s caught off-guard, but otherwise letting his carefully constructed wall become an essential part of who Lee is.
The supporting cast is no slouch, either. Kyle Chandler brings a zest and life to the role of Lee’s late brother, shown in flashbacks as both a key part of Lee’s life and a true counterpart to his brother. Gretchen Mol makes a great impact in a few short scenes as Lee’s former sister-in-law, a woman who’s trying to rebuild her own life after bottoming out. And, of course, there’s Michelle Williams as Lee’s former wife, a fellow survivor of a deep trauma that we only gradually come to understand; Williams is astonishing, reaching out to a man she once loved with equal parts kindness and regret, each of which is beautiful in its own way. But the real standout is Lucas Hedges as Lee’s nephew, a teenaged boy with his own concerns and life who’s forced to deal with the death of his father and his new life under the strange, withdrawn Lee. Hedges makes a brilliant foil to Lee, tossing sarcastic barbs his way and raging in that way that all teenagers do…and then, when we least expect it, showing the pain that’s underneath his cool exterior.
But all of these performances wouldn’t matter at all with Lonergan’s brilliant writing and low-key direction, which allows everyone the chance to breathe, to develop, and to exist as more than characters in a film. As we watch Lee trying to come to terms with the changes in his life, as we watch Lucas attempting to figure out what’s next, as we see Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol attempting to rebuild old relationships, Lonergan makes every moment more than just a plot beat; it becomes something painfully human, something that allows us to explore grief, healing, and emotional pain. And if that sounds grim, rest assured, it is…but it’s also surprisingly, wonderfully funny, finding a joy in the characters’ barbs and sarcastic jabs, in their profane exchanges, in their woefully inadequate responses. It’s a film that’s equally at home in comedic beats and painful emotional truths, and that’s a rare thing to find.
If there’s a flaw in Manchester by the Sea, it’s the ending, which didn’t quite work for me; it’s open-ended, which isn’t the end of the world, but it feels like an ending that needs about five more minutes of epilogue just to get things settled. It ends up feeling abridged, not unlike some of the dangling plot threads left behind in Lonergan’s Margaret, which showed its scars of studio interference clearly. And yet, even with my slight frustration with the ending (and a couple of beats that felt slightly smoothed over), I still loved the film, which feels quiet, introspective, and beautiful, carefully depictiing grief in all of its complexity. It shows wounded people in all their infinite variety, and lets them be simply people, not just symbols of a theme. And it brings to life its rich world, never giving us easy answers, but letting us witness people as they struggle to heal from unimaginable things. And that in of itself makes it a beautiful, remarkable film.