Kenneth Lonergan is a playwright who writes novelistic films. Or does nowadays, anyway. His first film, You Can Count on Me, was a comparatively tight portrait of a relationship between an adult brother and sister. Since then, his plots have tended to sprawl and defy easy synopsizing. His last film, Margaret, was so guilty of this that the film took more than five years to make it to the cinema from the time it was filmed, and ended up released in a drastically cut version that was subject to legal disputes. Although the strains of that experience show in the final film, his view into the lives of characters impacted by a fatal New York bus accident has been praised by some as one of this century’s finest.
His new film, Manchester by the Sea, has seemed to find Lonergan at an ideal balance between focus and sprawl, and the resulting praise has been universal. An argument could be made, though, that it’s the least effective of his three films – which would be a testament to his prodigious talent more than any indictment of Manchester. There’s no doubt that it’s his most emotionally devastating.
Manchester is a town in Massachusetts where Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) grew up with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). (And there’s no truth to the rumour that sharing a last name with the character helped Kyle Chandler get the part.) As adults, Lee lives as a janitor down in Quincy, further south in the state, while Joe operates a fishing boat and lives with his son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), in the town where they grew up. But Joe’s recently diagnosed congestive heart failure has caught up with him, and one morning Lee receives the call that his brother has succumbed to a heart attack. Upon returning to Manchester, he learns he’s been named in Joe’s will as Patrick’s guardian – a role for which he is uniquely unqualified, for reasons that are eventually revealed, which explain why Lee is no longer married to his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). As Lee struggles with logistics related to the funeral, how he is supposed to uproot his life to act as Patrick’s guardian, and his own emotional availability, Patrick continues to face the challenges of being a teenager, like his hockey team and the fact that he’s secretly seeing two different girlfriends.
The last portion of that sentence gets at the sprawl that creeps into this film, which is either a strength of the script or a limiting factor to its effectiveness, depending on how you look at it. When Patrick first learns of his father’s death, we see it from afar – Lonergan shoots the scene from across a hockey rink, and the comfort he receives is at a distance, supplied by two fellow players who clap him on the shoulder. Other than that, we don’t really see him process the news. What we do see are a series of ensuing scenes played sort of as comedy, in which he is trying to have sex with one of his girlfriends despite the fact that her mother keeps interrupting them.
It’s a curious choice. The surface explanation is that life goes on amidst tragedy, that human existence involves an absurd proximity between the grave and the inconsequential. Patrick’s dad may have just died, but he’s still got lady problems, and they’re still sort of funny. If you’re more sceptical about the way Lonergan focuses his attentions, you’d accuse him of not understanding what’s most important here. But Lonergan knows that numerous films have zoomed in on the tear-streaked face of a person grieving the loss of a loved one. Fewer care about what that person has to do 15 minutes later, and a week later, and a year later, and that most of it has nothing to do with that grief.
But it’s also clear that Lonergan thinks grief is something we must experience privately. Just as he gives Patrick his space to absorb the news, he doesn’t tell us why Lee is grieving until about the film’s midpoint, at which time we realize he’s not just a down-on-his-luck tradie who hasn’t caught life’s breaks. There’s a nearly Shakespearean tragedy to Lee’s circumstances, which Affleck expertly underplays, in part because he is grieving privately rather than publicly. Affleck’s grief manifests itself as an odd kind of social disconnect punctuated by episodes of extreme rage, and most of the time he just looks sort of confused. There’s no confusion in the actor, who has already been feted at the Golden Globes and is the Oscar frontrunner, but the character has entirely lost his bearings on how to be. Because Affleck is so good, we don’t even realise this is what’s happening until he’s been showing it to us for most of the movie.
Manchester by the Sea’s imperfections are life’s imperfections. There are flabby parts to this script, scenes it doesn’t entirely seem necessary to show us, like a subplot about Patrick reconnecting with his estranged mother (Gretchen Mol). But Lonergan wouldn’t have it any other way. Life is rarely neat; it contains things we don’t want to see, don’t feel like we should be seeing. Too many films have been bundled in neat packages, and Lonergan has no interest in that. Then again, knowing that he had problems editing his own content down to a decent running time in Margaret, one wonders if there’s a certain lack of formal rigor to Lonergan’s approach, which he excuses by writing it off as the messiness of life.
Because of this approach, Manchester by the Sea does not attain conventional satisfactions. If you’re waiting for a moment of catharsis, it’ll be a long wait. But if you’re looking for a useful document on the experience of grief, one that comforts without providing pat answers, Manchester offers a real dose of that type of humanism. It doesn’t solve. It just perseveres.