Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film has been a long time coming. Originally proposed by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, Manchester by the Sea is the story of both the aftermath and prelude to one family’s grief. It is a quietly heartbreaking essay in broken humanity. Whilst exploring relatable themes, Lonergan focuses on intimately personal devastation and lays bare truths in a world which so often seems intolerable.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an anti-social nobody living from a cellar in Boston; ‘You’re just a janitor’ as his nephew (a very promising Lucas Hedges) bluntly puts it. Chandler lives a life of self-imposed isolation. His one-room ‘home’ reminds at once of both jail cell and the prison basement of last year’s Room. His sense of feeling is deeply repressed, at odds with subtly warmer toned flashbacks, and emerges only in violent pub outbursts against strangers. Lonergan, who writes as well as directs, gradually teases out Lee’s life stage by stage with each revelation more harrowing than the last. The present-day plot surrounds the death of his more grounded, but weak-hearted (literally), brother Joe whose Will dictates that Lee should now become guardian to Hedges’ Patrick. The problem is that Lee is no longer the family man he used to be. The man before who was flawed but happy.
Damon was formally to take the lead – to direct too actually – but Affleck picks up the role as though destined to do so. He really is that good. On the surface, Lee is cold, awkward and blank; his brother’s death inspires a choice word followed by a dive into the details of funeral provision. Underneath this slate, however, Affleck imbues a thoroughly human and vulnerable man. Behind sad eyes lie tortured pain, tears and anger all bubbling and kept constantly restrained. Damon would certainly have done a good job but Affleck’s comparative anonymity as an actor – his brother Ben is far better known – allows him to become Lee Chandler. For the entirety of Manchester by the Sea’s two and a quarter hour runtime Affleck sells the role so honestly that his is a presence that feels more than genuine, it’s real. Every part of him embodies the character, his every twitch and turn feels thought through and carefully crafted. Give the man an Oscar!
Truthfulness is indeed key to the film’s biggest successes. Scenes stripped of soundtrack to the bare bones of the story are where Lonergan best convinces. These instances are terrific but no easy watch; they depict how things are. Things are tough. ‘He looks like he’s dead. He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping or anything’ Lee tells Patrick after a stand-out mortuary scene. Lonergan and Affleck were apparently meticulous in their approach to bringing the script to life, arguing even on small motions and gestures. This care for mise-en-scene is a real asset. There are extras in Manchester by the Sea more tightly characterised and three dimensional than leads in some of the films witnessed in the past year. Michelle Williams has a small role to fill but performs it finely and leaves you wishing she had more to do. Less naturalistic it must be noted is the soundtrack. Whilst occasionally beautiful and fittingly haunting, these constant refrains are more often intrusive and deploy a faux grandeur.
Affleck has suggested that Manchester by the Sea could take place anywhere given the universal nature of the story but I disagree. The real Manchester by the Sea is every bit the apt backdrop and mirrors Affleck’s Lee perfectly. Both desolate on face value alone Lonergan is fascinated with man and town alike and grants each expressive and exploratory screen-time. His camerawork bids the viewer to see beneath a cold exterior, say a still water, and learn their secrets, the life rippling beneath. The more you learn, the more you love.
Manchester by the Sea involves and moves in equal measure. It is a subtle and devastating masterpiece from Lonergan and a showcase for Affleck. Sublime.