As sturdy as a mid-century American automobile, and as faithful to a cautious speed limit, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” navigates a Massachusetts man’s encompassing grief over a family calamity with careful precision and plenty of insight. After enduring a protracted creative and legal battle over his equally protracted sophomore film “Margaret,” the esteemed playwright and “You Can Count On Me” filmmaker has returned to a milieu of post-tragedy floundering, but thankfully with less unwieldiness and a surer grip on his material.
Lonergan’s also got a superlative lead performance in Casey Affleck, delivering the closest thing to star-powered pain you’re likely to see on a screen, that seems destined for awards-season attention. The result is a movie that, if never exactly a cathartic experience, carries you along in its clenched grip with an undeniable power. It’s sad and funny and real. Though its flaws — a certain narrative predictability and characters that rarely disappoint after you initially peg them — are always apparent, Lonergan never seems to care, and strangely enough that persistence makes for its own humming engine of lives lived, decisions made, and consequences endured.
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an emotionally shut-down Boston janitor with just enough patience for eccentric renters with leaky faucets, but not enough to avoid initiating bar fights with strangers. Upon receiving news from his fishing-village hometown that a diagnosed heart condition has finally taken down his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee makes his way to Manchester to look after his now-teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges, “The Slap”). In flashbacks, we see Joe as the steady husband of a fragile wife named Elise (Gretchen Mol) and father to their young son, but after Joe and Elise’s divorce, this death in the family leaves the adolescent boy virtually an orphan.
When the night that changed everything is eventually revealed, it comes not as a shock so much as the grim a-ha that explains the slow-motion nature of Lee’s engagement with the world. As he struggles to do his duty as a caretaking uncle while avoiding the reality of full-time guardianship, we recognize a man for whom life ended long ago, with everything since then a responsibility-driven, pleasure-free existence. Though Patrick is a surprisingly resilient survivor — popular at school, wisecracking, juggling two girlfriends — Lee seems unwilling to allow being re-acquainted with a once-close family member to be the catalyst for redemption or a new lease on life.
“Manchester by the Sea,” which boasts crisply evocative New England cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes (“Trainwreck,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), is the kind of movie that walks right up to the line of indie miserablism without ever quite crossing it. Lonergan knows when to find Lee’s avoidance of socializing funny, as in some of Affleck’s and Hedges’s pricklier exchanges, or the futile attempts of a flirtatious single mom to open him up while her daughter and Patrick negotiate nooky time upstairs.
Later, it’s more openly heartbreaking when Lee can’t ignore a run-in with newly-married and pregnant Randi, her teary plea for reconnecting proving more than Lee’s closed-off soul can handle. Affleck and the reliably intense Williams turn the scene into its own mini-tragedy: all well-meaning defensiveness and aching impossibility.
As you might guess, this melancholic symphony of Lonergan’s is built on the back of its actors, so when you find yourself watching a character wonder what to do with his or her hands, or where to look, or how to say what they mean, you’re in Lonergan’s grip. Affleck has simply never been more thorough and mesmerizing, his croaky-voiced Lee a sleepwalker determined to follow sympathetic protocol and little more, a clock-puncher with his humanity.
The rest of the movie is a buffet of finely nuanced portrayals, from Chandler in the flashbacks to Hedges in the present day. Mol’s Elise is one of the few with a foot in both time frames, popping up again as the born-again wife of an evangelical (Matthew Broderick), but perhaps too nervous to make a wished-for reunion with her son palatable for herself.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled at “Manchester by the Sea,” it oddly enough lies in its strength. Lonergan’s emphasis on the gravel of life is admirable and authentic, but can sometimes feel haphazardly assembled. These are multi-faceted characters, to be sure, and fascinating specimens as a result, but you’d be hard pressed to call “Manchester” a flowing work of naturalism. Its two-hour-plus length can at times feel dictated by Lonergan’s need to fill the shopping cart to overflowing with real-life moments, rather than from being more selective about which ones tell the movie’s story with the most purpose.
But even if a sense of repetition and drag sets in, it’s still a journey about grief, community and endurance with a keen understanding of humans and relationships, and burnished as such by its wonderful cast.