It’s a widely accepted truism that disaster brings out the worst in some people and the best in others. But there’s also a broad spectrum of responses in between. Some traumatized individuals traverse that entire spectrum over time, gradually, or in fits and starts; others seem to get stuck in one place more or less permanently. Time doesn’t truly heal all wounds. That in a vague nutshell is the premise at the heart of the latest film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a man soured and shriveled emotionally by some immense psychic burden, but the audience doesn’t find out exactly what until midway through the film. When we first get to know him, it seems possible that he’s just a cranky, resentful person with miserable social skills, technically competent at his job as a janitor but randomly rude even to people who try to be friendly to him – when he has anything to say at all. It’s established early on that he has a drinking problem and is prone to starting fist fights in bars.
There seems no basis in the present for empathy for this unlikable protagonist, so Lonergan immerses us periodically in flashbacks to reveal where the monstrous chip on Lee’s shoulder was spawned. His happiest memories are of fishing excursions with his affable older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Joe’s young son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). We also find that, in the early years of his marriage back in Manchester, Massachusetts, Lee was a different person: easygoing, fun-loving and like Joe, an affectionate goofball of a dad.
Lee’s dismal attempts to put his past behind him are interrupted by a phone call bearing long-dreaded news: that Joe has been felled by congestive heart failure. Returning to the home of his youth to make funeral arrangements, the younger brother is baffled to discover that he has been named Patrick’s guardian, Joe’s ex-wife’s whereabouts being unknown.
This is the part where, in a more conventional drama about bereavement, things could have gone all gooey and heartwarming as two ill-matched souls go through the predictable motions of male bonding. Lonergan makes his tale more challenging than that. Lee wants no part of the responsibility thrust upon him, and Patrick – written as self-absorbed and sarcastic as a 16-year-old can be – doesn’t make things any easier for him. Lee’s guilt-ridden past keeps rearing its ugly head, and the two men’s attempts at breaking through each other’s walls are halfhearted at best. There’s much brittle humor to be found in their verbal sparring as they navigate the more irritable range of response to grief; Lonergan has a fine ear for gritty working-class dialogue. The women in Patrick and Lee’s lives try more earnestly to reestablish communication, but in general we get more in the way of awkward silences and people talking over one another than we do of the sort of heart-to-heart catharsis that typifies such family dramas.
Manchester by the Sea is a movie with many strengths: excellent writing and a strong acting ensemble – young Hedges in particular is a revelation. There’s beautiful cinematography and art direction that bring the northern Massachusetts coast to palpable life; the interiors of Joe’s house are reminiscent of the cabin of a sailing ship, and you can just about taste the salubrious sea air, however wintry the weather. But the film also comes with difficulties beyond the uncompromising realism of the narrative: a choppy editing style that sometimes makes it too obvious that two camera angles in the same scene didn’t emanate from the same take; an overamplified, mostly classical score that often becomes annoyingly intrusive; an occasional distracting detail like the really bad wig that Michelle Williams is wearing in a crucial confrontation between Lee and his ex-wife Randi.
Though it’s being touted as a strong candidate for Best Picture awards, Manchester by the Sea is far from perfect. It is, however, amply rewarding – especially if you’re the sort of viewer who appreciates deviation from genre formula. There are good reasons why Kenneth Lonergan is famed more as a playwright than as a screenwriter.
To read more of Frances’ movie reviews, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com.