Oh, my grief…
In an early scene in Manchester By The Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is brought into a hospital morgue to view the corpse of his newly-deceased older brother Joe (the serendipitously-named Kyle Chandler). The scene plays out like the rest of the film, but in miniature; Lee is confronted by death and regret, and unsure quite how to react. Affleck is an astonishing watch. The film is studded with moments in which he walks a fine line between cracking and maintaining his emotions, and it’s this expectation of an eventual breakdown that keeps us watching throughout Manchester By The Sea. No-one reacts fully how we expect to death; Affleck’s performance, and the film as a whole, are explorations of such reactions. The emotionality is expected, but it’s the moments of relative calm that surprise us.
If you thought writer/director Kenneth Lonergan was done with exploring grief after his masterpiece, the misbegotten and mesmerising Margaret, just you wait ’til you see Manchester By The Sea. It’s reassuring that the post-production nightmare of Margaret did not deter the playwright-turned-filmmaker from stepping back behind the camera for his third feature, not least because he’s tackling familiar themes from a new vantage point. If Margaret saw its young heroine use death and mourning for self-definition, Manchester By The Sea is about one man’s desperate plea to escape death and his past. The feeling is universal; the past hurts most when the ones who populated it pass on. Away from the hidden nooks of Margaret’s New York, the titular small town offers no respite from the memories that haunt its protagonist. We first meet Affleck’s Lee in happier times, with Joe and his young nephew Patrick on board the family boat, sharing a laugh over fishing lessons. Then, harsh reality crashes in years later, as Lee’s routine as an apartment super in Boston is interrupted by a call back to Manchester and his ailing brother. Though shot by DoP Jody Lee Lipes with a crispness to match that of its wintry Massachusetts setting, Manchester By The Sea is another sharply-observed portrait of the messiness of grief. Routines get upended, emotions become confused and storylines overlap. Credit to Lonergan and editor Jennifer Lame; the first act of the film is a skilful back-and-forth between Joe’s previous health concerns and the here-and-now, with Joe deceased and Lee forced into not only becoming a guardian to the now-teenaged Patrick (Lucas Hedges), but also confronting the reasons he left Manchester originally. The past is uncovered, and the present becomes clearer. Lee evades the past like a scab that cries out to be picked, but the wounds are too great to ignore.
The ghosts that haunt Lee get dredged up as soon as he arrives. Each familiar face he encounters drags up a memory. A call from his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, never better) brings on a recollection of Lee snuggling up to a flu-ridden Randi in their once-happy home. Lonergan’s film is careful not to divulge its secrets too early; hints are only offered as to why their marriage collapsed, giving greater heft to the eventual revelations. As in Margaret and You Can Count On Me, Lonergan’s script is incisive enough to let proceedings play out in ways that we don’t see in movies all that often, but that feel truer to life. Here is a film about grief that finds time for humour. Echoing the scatty memories of such sad moments, Joe’s funeral takes place in silence except for a portion of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ playing over it, while conversations repeatedly bring simmering emotions, but they rarely boil over out of decorum. Both Manchester By The Sea and its characters react to their given situations in recognisably flawed ways. For example, though now fatherless, Patrick diffuses any grief by hanging out with his friends (Their band practice sessions offer valuable moments of levity), or one of his two girlfriends. Hedges balances initial cockiness with a slowly-mounting upset in a revelatory performance. He’s able backup to Affleck and Williams, who are both sublime. One of the best scenes in any film this year sees Lee and Randi meet at random in the street, and both actors bounce off each other as the couple struggle to keep the lid on their feelings they’ve carried for so long. There’s only so long you can maintain a facade before you crumble, and Affleck and Williams break down beautifully.
Manchester By The Sea doesn’t offer predictable images of grief or trite answers; Lonergan is too smart and capable a filmmaker to be so cheap. What he gives us instead is a collection of people with complex emotions working them out together. Lonergan can move between Manhattan and rural Massachusetts, and still keep humanity and complexity in place, because he gets what makes his characters tick. You don’t have to be from Manchester By The Sea to know how much grief hurts, but it’s good to know people feel it everywhere.