The Private Tragedies and Personal Turmoils of ‘Manchester By the Sea’

A delicate film of modesty and grace, about the tragedies that affect and ultimately define us.

We first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the protagonist of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, via observation rather than introduction. He works as a handyman in a Boston apartment complex, and we see a few brief moments from an average day. When his work his done, he goes to the neighborhood bar. A pretty girl is friendly to him, but he’s non-responsive; he’s not there to flirt, he’s there to drink. By the end of the night, he’s ashen-faced, and he goes looking for a fight, and finds one. This, too, seems very much part of the routine.

He’s introverted and gruff and a bit of a sad sack, because there was a tragedy in his life. He does not talk about it; this is what he does instead. Manchester is a film that not only understands guys like Lee, but understands that impulse, and adopts it. For a good long chunk of the movie, we don’t know what happened in his past, and we have to piece together who’s who in the current tragedy that’s prompting him to revisit the older one. (They’re told concurrently, a smoothly organic construction that transcends gimmickery.) It’s not to be coy, or to toy with the audience – it’s because Lonergan is allergic to easy exposition, and the details are not the kind of thing that would come up a lot in this guy’s day-to-day. He knows what happened, and anyone who’s still around him knows too.

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He’s currently dealing with the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, wonderfully Kyle Chandler-y), and the complications surrounding it – specifically, guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, excellent). Patrick has a good thing going in their hometown of Manchester; he’s popular in school, plays hockey, has a solid support system of friends and girlfriends. But Lee moved away from Manchester all those years ago when the bad thing happened. That town is haunted by too many of his ghosts.

Like Lonergan’s debut feature You Can Count on Me, it’s ultimately about two people whose familial bond means they’re stuck together, and they’re gonna have to figure it out. His script is a marvel, telling Joe and Lee’s story with the pathos you’d expect, and more earthy humor. Far more, in fact; Manchester by the Sea has bigger laughs than most films classified as comedy, often rooted in the affectionate ribbing of family members who know how to get each other’s goats, and understand that it’s just kidding (mostly). And it’s not one of those comedy/dramas where the first half is funny and the second half is sad – it’s funny when you least expect it, when it’s not supposed to be, and then they’ll go from big beats of character comedy to, say, Michelle Williams falling to pieces, her emotions as raw as a fresh wound.

This is not unheard of in (for lack of better terminology) real life; we feel multiple things simultaneously, or pivot from one big emotion to another, all the time. But it’s harder to do in art. Lonergan and his gifted ensemble make it look easy – because they’ve settled in to this town, and they know these people. It’s a rich world, where the tiniest details (Williams ending a phone call with “God bless,” the way Affleck handles his framed photos when he’s moving, the little edge to Matthew Broderick’s reading of “Lemme just see what she’s doing in there”) are like little short stories of their own.

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Word out of Manchester’s Sundance premiere was that it’d be one of the fall’s big tearjerkers, and your correspondent was braced for that; I’m an easy cry at the movies. But it didn’t make me weep, and I don’t think Lonergan wanted it to – it’s too restrained and graceful to go for easy tears, and it’s not about a guy who sheds them publicly. When that tragedy in Lee’s life is revealed – folded into another, seemingly unrelated scene, a sequence of unnerving unease created merely by juxtaposition and expectation – we see him begin to fall apart. And then Lonergan cuts to him talking about what’s happened, a scene that any actor would give his eye-teeth for, and most of them would fuck it all up by playing it as some sort of sobbing fit. Affleck shows us a man who’s already emptied himself out, in private; he’s got nothing left, which is why the scene ultimately plays out as it does.

That one scene is not only everything that’s great about Casey Affleck as an actor (and why he’ll always be an underappreciated one), but everything that’s great about Manchester By the Sea. There’s a modesty here that’s too often absent in fall prestige pictures, a sense that the director is protecting his characters, rather than exploiting them – that when these tragedies befall them, it’s only polite to look away, and to given them their space. But they’re there, breathing and pushing and trying, as one puts it, to “beat it.” And we’re with them.

Manchester By the Sea is out Friday in limited release.