Kenneth Lonergan uses revealing language and a relentlessly dry tone to make his third feature, ‘Manchester By the Sea,’ a profound journey through guilt and renewal.
Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, lives a life of solitude that includes days spent doing mundane maintenance work and nights spent drunkenly at the bar. When he receives news of his brother’s passing, he must return to his hometown to care for his nephew with whom he used to have a close bond. While in town, the memories he shared with his ex-wife resurface tragically.
A sense of Lee’s reserved character is understood in simple scenes like one where he repairs toilets and light fixtures while the older folk ramble on. Most scenes evoke emotions like sympathy and sorrow even if nothing exciting is happening or being said. Affleck brings this haunted character to life with a constant hesitation and despair.
Lee’s relationship with his nephew was once a loving bond that included fishing trips out on the family boat. The boat is where Lee’s brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler, has a heart attack.
Joe’s son Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, spent many days out at sea with his father and uncle. Flashbacks to brighter days contrast with the present state of the Chandler family in ways that cut to the core.
Michelle Williams is Randi, Lee’s former wife, whose presence makes Lee agitated and unstable within seconds. An embrace they share at Joe’s funeral gives us all we need to know about how they have healed. Her character has so much to say and she breaks down into a true state of vulnerability right before our eyes in one scene.
Lucas Hedges does extraordinary work as Patrick. His character’s youthful sarcasm proves that he can balance sorrow and humor just as well as the film itself.
One of the only times when Lee truly expresses himself is when he refers to his faults and says he “Can’t beat it.” By the sea with his nephew, he spends the brutally cold winter waiting for the ground to become soft enough to bury his brother.
Kenneth Lonergan and Casey Affleck have crafted a rich and layered American drama that explores the loss of family members and how their lives have a lasting impact from the grave. ‘Manchester By the Sea’ is a testament to how grief that is deeply rooted in love and anger can reveal continual life.