Lonergan’s earlier films, both penetrating family dramas like this one, presented their characters with thorny dilemmas that complemented their emotional growth and let them spin out in recognizable ways. All have dealt with death in one way or another, but Manchester By the Sea has the closest proximity, with the four primary characters being intimately associated with it. You Can Count On Me and Margaret presented scenarios that, while tragic, didn’t seem terribly far away from an average experience. The same cannot be said of Manchester By the Sea, which rests on an unknowable catastrophe that Joe’s death only serves to accentuate. There are unhealable wounds in Lee’s and Randi’s pasts, but as foreign as the experiences are, the emotions, tamped down by New England stoicism, are at an understandable level. The viewer spends a good chunk of the film waiting for, even hoping for, a catharsis, if only to get this communicable black tar out of the body, but because the characters are so internalized, it doesn’t come. The experience of watching Manchester By the Sea ranks up there with some of the most affecting in my cinematic life. Watching Lee swallow all this grief doesn’t allow for any respite, and it gets the viewer as close to his mindspace as possible.
The miracle in the film comes from being inside Lee’s head and it not being a wholly awful place, despite the dark clouds that swirl within. Manchester By the Sea is a funny film. The back and forth between Lee and Patrick, where neither will take any shit from the other, is a rapid-fire spread of exasperation and casual insults, made funnier by their age difference and funnier still by how it all rolls of each other’s back. The fish-out-of-water aspect of Lee suddenly forced into being a father-figure for a teen is a level of awkward comedy straight out of The Office, with Lee struggling to decide how he should advise Patrick about the strange freedom that has resulted from his dad’s death. Does the stopgap solution that is Lee comment about the teenage girl who’s suddenly joining him and Patrick for breakfast? The lived-in rapport extends to Lee and Randi in flashbacks to their married life. They share a relationship that is prickly but not brittle, and Williams manages the impossible feat of shutting down her husband’s late-night antics with friends without being a nag. As a family friend, C.J. Wilson gets in some choice asides, fulfilling the role of someone who commiserates with a grieving friend by trying to get them to laugh, and often succeeding. Lonergan knows how much he’s asking from his audience, and he doesn’t punish them with 137 minutes of black-dog depression.
After three exceptionally acted films, it’s fair to go ahead and call Lonergan an actor’s director. There aren’t any weak links in Manchester By the Sea, with each actor doing everything they can to be great and often succeeding. Williams is only in a tenth or so of the film, but her impact is significant and hangs over it all, a specter haunting Lee’s stay in town. It’s not difficult to imagine Chandler as a respected big brother after his role in Friday Night Lights, and while he is that here, he’s also just as clueless on how to deal with Lee as everyone else, with well-meaning befuddlement creasing his face. Hedges gets inside the skin of an adaptable teenager dealing with unforeseen circumstances, stretching his wings and testing boundaries but also able to go to pieces at a moment’s notice. He gets a little smirk when he realizes the leeway people give him due to his dead father, like I don’t have my dad but at least I can have this. The acclaim continues on down the cast list, with small roles fleshed out by Lonergan and performers like Heather Burns as a mother of one of Patrick’s girlfriends and Tate Donovan as Patrick’s hockey coach. Lonergan doesn’t cut any corners in populating the world, ensuring that every angle is smooth and coherent.
As great as the cast is, the film belongs to Affleck, fulfilling the potential unleashed back in 2007 with Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford and Gone Baby Gone. He disappears into the role of Lee, with monumental scene after monumental scene. The tragedy in his past follows him around like a ball and chain, and he’s got a permanently weary look from carrying it. A centerpiece scene between Lee and Randi has justly received raves. She gets the fireworks, and they are indeed bright, but he gets to put on a clinic in self-hatred, silently begging for an out and refusing to look her in the eye. This is one instance of many where Affleck is fully communicating his pain in subtle ways that are as powerful as a righteous scream to the heavens. Just him lifting his head in a police station is enough to send the viewer into stifled paroxysms.
Manchester By the Sea is an endurance test of hateful emotions and an honest depiction of death and pain, but like any physically difficult thing to do, the hard part is starting. Lonergan makes such a mentally immersive film that despite the brutality of it, it sings with momentum and longing to see these characters perhaps make it through to the other side, or at least open up their world a tiny bit. In their big confrontation, Randi begs Lee to not just go off and die, to try and rebuild a life on the rubble of their past, but Lonergan creates a scenario where maybe there isn’t any coming back. It’s hard to go to that place, but even with all the time spent after, lingering on its most painful moments, Manchester By the Sea is worth the journey. A