Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: January 13th
There’s a humour in death and loss. It’s not immediately apparent at a time of grief but human nature and our innate clumsiness in dealing makes it inevitable. With his new film Manchester by the Sea, a bleak and compassionate drama about coping with bereavement and escaping your past, Kenneth Lonergan leans heavily on this idea to place levity alongside some of the tough themes it deals with. People ungracefully talk about Star Trek to deflect from discomfort, a life-changing diagnosis can be cut through by a family member repeatedly getting the doctor’s name wrong, and the absurdity of renting a steam shovel to bury a loved one can bring short respite from reality.
Lonergan works expertly in understatement: things unsaid, what appear at first as throwaway lines, misheard conversations and emphasis on background over foreground. Yet he affords himself one big scene and it comes close to derailing the entire movie. Scored by the grossly overused and maudlin ‘Adagio in G Minor’, he ticks off a laundry list of tired tropes that leads to a moment that feels out of place and entirely unearned. The impact should be devastating, but it veers so egregiously into misery porn that it fails to be affecting . Music is an issue throughout, with Lesley Barber’s orchestral chamber pieces not sitting quite right with a depiction of blue collar life and insular males negotiating with the passing of an important figure in their lives.
Although the lead was originally planned for Matt Damon (who was also to direct but remains a producer), it is custom made for Casey Affleck. He’s at his best when he’s awkward and delivers lines in crackled mumbles, so Lee Chandler, a withdrawn loner with a violent streak, is the perfect fit for him. Where he excels is not in any grandstanding moment — Lee’s history and trauma ensure that doesn’t exist — he has nothing to hide because there’s nothing in him anymore, his only connection to humanity comes in the form of bar fights that are as much about making a connection as a hope that they’ll be his last.
Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom and Kill the Messenger) has an entirely different coping mechanism which he gleefully explains to Lee when he attempts to bring him to live in Quincy (“I’m on the hockey team, the basketball team, all my friends are here, I have two girlfriends and I’m in a band”). He’s definitely suffering but subsists on glib remarks and trying to get the ride.
Michelle Williams is in short supply, reduced only to a few pivotal scenes, but her performance — including an off-screen phone call where she exudes more pathos and heartbreak than most could hope for in a For Your Consideration reel — is raw and vital. She’s the standout in a strong supporting cast that boasts the ever reliant Kyle Chandler as the family patriarch and C.J. Wilson giving a masterclass in human decency as a loyal friend of the Chandlers.
Lonergan mostly takes a back seat and lets his actors immerse themselves in the pain, allowing them to find naturalistic portrayals of empathy and sadness. It doesn’t always work — it lags quite some — and no great catharsis is offered, but its honest rendering of how we condition ourselves to live despite death hangs with you long after.