MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michele Williams
Out of ****
“You have two forms of expression, silence and rage,” Charles Grodin famously barked at Robert De Niro’s bounty-hunter Jack Walsh in the 1988 Action/Comedy Midnight Run. Almost 30 years later we are presented with Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a man who embodies that particular direct-characterization to the core. Affleck gives the performance of 2016 and his career, saddled with the grief and trauma of an unspeakable lapse of judgment that has relegated him to a ghost-like life. Stoic at times when he’s not at a bar punching strangers in the face; Lee is an outcast from his home-town of Manchester, Massachusetts, living a mundane life 45 to 90 minutes away (depending on who you ask, this screenplay is full of authentic confrontation - including a hilarious argument about what the travel time is with and without traffic) in Boston.
Lee spends his days getting barked at by residents of the apartment complex where he makes his living as a handyman. The film opens with an intermittently humorous sequence of Affleck attempting to repair various household’s pipes, faucets and toilets while not so successfully restraining himself from flying off the handle at the building-dwellers. At night Lee relegates himself to sitting alone at the local dive, maybe getting into a quarrel with a fellow barfly on occasion. Rinse and repeat. We’re given a sense that Lee is tormented, but it’s not quite clear at the outset the real pain he has suffered and the scars on his soul. His current inhabitance is disrupted one morning by a call from his hometown’s hospital. Lee’s brother Joe has dropped dead due to a heart disease that had been lurking for some time, forcing Lee to travel back to Manchester By the Sea to see to his deceased brother’s affairs.
Joe was a single parent, his wife estranged having been unable to cope with her alcoholism – leading him to choose Lee as the legal guardian for his 16 year old son Patrick (the incredibly effective newcomer Lucas Hedges), much to Affleck’s character’s surprise. The news of this responsibility is juxtaposed with a harrowing sequence of the tragedy that befell Lee's family, and ultimately caused him to flee Manchester a decade or so earlier. I found it refreshing that the revelation of Patrick’s chosen legal guardian, and Lee’s acceptance of this is wrapped up in one somber sequence - before Affleck’s character even leaves the office of Joe's lawyer. A scene that would most likely be drawn out and milked with an ultimate triumph by a lesser film, is instead concluded with Lee storming out of the office and getting into an expletive-laden confrontation with his nephew and a passerby.
Lee’s brother is played by Kyle (quite coincidentally also named) Chandler, and with the exception of when he is seen on a slab in the morgue, he is depicted only in flashback. Lee spends a lot of time reminiscing about his brother, while listening to various Manchester residents remind him of what a great man Joe was. His big brother was very much a father figure to Lee, speaking to him in a manner similar to how he spoke to his young boy. After a brief argument with Lee over his new studio basement apartment and Lee's indifference about the furnishings in this new life, Joe tells Patrick “let’s go,” then sternly turns to Lee and tells him the same. That squabble followed shortly after Lee's own personal tragedy, his brother not allowing him to surrender to despair. The revere for his older brother quietly demonstrating why Lee ultimately can't waiver on carrying out Joe’s dying wishes.
Lonergan tackled similar territory in 2000’s You Can Count on Me, where an estranged black-sheep family member comes back home to serve a purpose in the life (or what was left behind) of a sibling. Lee wanders around town in between driving Patrick to school and band practice, trying to find employment in his home-town as people gawk, thinking of only of the horror that a moment of tragic irresponsibility caused. His nephew and him engage in verbal-spats frequently over moving to Boston, Lee never able to convey to him how and why he cannot remain in this place – turning to silence when pushed for an answer by Patrick. “Can we not talk about this now?” Trying to do the best by his nephew, while faced with the awful truth that there is no place left for him in Manchester. A conversation unfolds between his brother’s lawyer and him, where Lee emphatically explains that he cannot possibly be the best choice of guardian, “I’m just the backup plan,” he exclaims.
All of this probably sounds like a completely dour experience, and Lonergan certainly does not pull any punches with the subject matter – there’s a profound melancholy behind every scene, as these regular-folks deal with a weight-of-world level of grief. Melancholic moments however are punctuated with grand instances of optimistic authenticity and lived-in ball busting dialogue between these richly realized characters; the world they inhabit feels as alive and authentic as any film this year. Manchester is a masterpiece in tone, fluctuating from moments of comedic interactions and circumstances to ones of abject sadness. Such is life. Lee’s frustration at one point brings him to throw his hand through the window of his dead brother’s bedroom – met with an inquiry from his nephew of “what did you do to your hand?” Lee growls “I cut it up.” “Oh thanks, couldn’t see that.” I spent much of Manchester laughing when I wasn’t on the verge of bawling my eyes out.
The standout here is Affleck, silently shuffling from scene to scene, the light behind his eyes extinguished by grief and regret. Lee is no longer capable of making everyday small talk, as evidenced by his nephew's girlfriend’s mother asking not to be left alone with him anymore, “he refuses to speak.” Rendered functionally catatonic by tragedy, Manchester is very much about how different people handle personal anguish. After being left without a purpose years ago, Lee is needed by his nephew – there to pick up the pieces in this most important time. A conversation took place between Patrick and him on Joe’s boat years ago. Lee asked his adolescent nephew, “if you could take one guy to an island with you… and you knew you’d be safe because he was the best man.. he was going to keep you happy…who would you take, if it was between me and your father?” “My daddy!” Patrick responded gleefully. When tragedy befell Lee years back, his brother was there to pick up the pieces and get him on his feet, knowing things were never going to be the same.
Everyone needs a handyman when things are broken, nothing is ever going to be perfect; Lee is not merely a “backup plan” – he is the next best thing, and Manchester by the Sea is a masterpiece.