Mark Reviews Movies

Manchester by the Sea


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, C.J. Wilson, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Kara Hayward, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Tom Kemp, Tate Donovan

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual content)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 11/18/16 (limited); 11/25/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 24, 2016

There is, of course, the grieving process, with those famous five stages that don't follow any particular rules or convenient timeframes. Then there's another process, which amounts to the socially prescribed stages of grief. These are, essentially, the routines of death and its aftermath.

One must get to the hospital on time. After that, a person must deal with the paperwork and claiming the deceased's possessions, not to mention the body itself. There's the reading of the will, and after that, there is the preparation for some combination of a wake, a funeral, and a burial. The idea of any sort of routine during a time of such uncertainty seems absurd, and the recognition of that absurdity is one of the driving forces of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's exceptional Manchester by the Sea.

The film isn't just about grieving. It's also about how we avoid grieving—or at least try to avoid it. Denial is a strong impulse. So, too, is routine. As absurd as it may seem at times of sorrow, routine is also a necessity. There's a need to feel normal, even though nothing is.

A man has lost his brother. A teenage boy has lost his father.

The man wants to avoid this pain, because, in addition to the obvious reason, this death raises the terrible memory of the worst pain of his life. His brother was, in a way, the last connection he had to family—the only person who knew what happened and who would still talk to him despite it, the man who helped him through that impossible time without questions or hesitation, the penultimate name to go on the family tombstone. Now the family grave marker only has space remaining for one name and a set of two dates. The name will be his: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). He only knows one of those dates.

The son wants to avoid this reality, because he's not supposed to be experiencing this at this point in his life. He's supposed to be thinking about his future, about girls, about friends, about the lousy band he's in, about a summer job, and maybe about a fishing trip when the weather gets nicer. No, the fishing trips were between the son and his father—sometimes including the teen's uncle Lee, too, although those times went away a while ago because of an event that the boy was too young to fully understand. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) doesn't really know his uncle anymore, but now Lee is the only family member who's able and willing to be family to the teenage boy.

The "willing" part of it, though, seems to disappearing with every day, with every new responsibility, and with every reminder of this new loss, which brings with it the memories of the older, never-forgotten one. The film moves effortlessly between the present and the past, as flashbacks underscore the shifting dynamics of these characters, up until the current situation in which they find themselves.

Lee presently lives in Boston, working a thankless janitor job at an apartment complex, where he lives in a one-room basement apartment. He receives a phone call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital after a heart attack. Lonergan's focus on the minutiae of the grieving experience is established quickly, as his camera sits in the back of Lee's car as the character attempts to maneuver rush-hour traffic on his way from the city to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea.

By the time Lee arrives at the hospital, his brother has been dead for a couple of hours. It's only when Lee sees his brother's body in the hospital morgue that the reality of what has happened actually sinks in for him.

It really began years ago when Joe was diagnosed with a degenerative heart disease. The day Joe was diagnosed is what Lee remembers at the hospital on this day, in a scene that briefly but perfectly encapsulates the quick-to-irritate but also quick-to-amuse nature of this family. The film's heart may be of mourning, but its perspective is precise in regards to the ways that people respond to such live-changing events. Lonergan doesn't prevent reactions such as humor or awkwardness from turning up, because they are just as natural under the circumstances as anything else.

Lonergan's screenplay is more or less a series of such vignettes, tied together by Lee and Patrick's respective reactions to Joe's death, as well as the ebbs and flows of their new life together under one roof, and the gradual revelation of Lee's life before he moved to Boston.

The key revelation comes as Lee hears the stipulations of Joe's will, placing guardianship of Patrick on Lee. Before this point, rumors have circled around Lee's return to town. Here, in a devastating montage juxtaposed with Lee's silence upon hearing about his new legal responsibility for another person (Jennifer Lame's editing of the present day and flashbacks is seamless throughout, but it reaches a zenith during this sequence), we see the truth.

Lee was once married to Randi (Michelle Williams, whose performance within only a handful of scenes is heartbreaking, particularly during Randi's second reunion with her ex-husband). An unthinkable, completely avoidable tragedy occurs on his watch (Lonergan chooses relative silence in the reveal of what happened, which somehow makes it all the more shattering and horrifying—just as the sight of the backs of three picture frames is more melancholy because we fill in the blank of what they contain). There's a routine to the aftermath of this sequence, too, and it all but breaks Lee.

The sequence reframes everything that we think we know about Lee and his relationships to his brother, nephew, ex-wife, and, really, the town itself (The camera catches Lee looking out a window in Joe's house toward a seemingly empty spot of land, and after the flashback, we understand why). The character's emotional distance from others suddenly has a foundation, and Affleck's performance reveals a meticulous understanding of how fear can look like stubbornness, anger, coldness, and apathy.

On another section of the spectrum is Patrick, who seemingly takes that desire to return to normalcy to an extreme that looks like complete denial. He preoccupies himself by hanging out with friends and juggling a pair of girlfriends. Hedges' performance is so understated—with a seemingly unflappable sense of confidence and a dry sense of humor—that the character's sudden displays of tangible grief are all the more potent, such as in a scene in which he realizes what it means that his father's body won't be able to be buried until the ground thaws from the winter chill (Also note how Affleck subtly suggests Lee has prior experience with this inconvenient fact of climate).

The empathy displayed by Manchester by the Sea—for these characters' struggles with new pain and old heartbreak—is abundant and seemingly endless (Indeed, the film finds the perfect resolution without resolving anything). Lonergan's film is a marvel of compassion and character-specific observation.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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