Casey Affleck’s performance in “Manchester By The Sea” is one of the most effectively crafted portrayals of the crippling weight of grief in recent movies. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s composition is lured toward him, every moment that he’s occupying the frame; the actor is like a tractor beam. It’s a performance that lives in his ability to convey an inability to process a tsunami of emotion. Affleck takes you up close and personal to the unimaginable; so proceed with caution.
Matt Damon, Affleck’s friend and “Ocean’s” “Good Will Hunting,” co-star, had been lining up to direct “Manchester” from the script by Lonergan until that iteration of the production fell through. Affleck came aboard at that moment and Lonergan inherited directing duties. Affleck is quick to say that Lonergan is really the only person equipped to bring this tale to the screen; and that’s evident in their collaboration to produce such a profoundly affective performance. Affleck does some of his best work when he’s able to step out of supporting roles into characters with conflicting and contradictory internal machinations. “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” had been the exemplary roles on Affleck’s resume, until now. As I’m reviewing this film Affleck has already won the Best Actor Award at the 2017 Golden Globes; and is nominated for the Academy Award.
Lonergan creates a burden for Lee and it genuinely feels like it doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to take it. Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), a sufferer of a longstanding heart condition unexpectedly passes away; leaving his son Patrick in his care. There may have been films before, where due to unforeseen circumstances the unreliable, antisocial member of a family must step up to the plate - so to speak - and take the mantle as parent/guardian. From the moment that Lee returns to Manchester it’s clear that a dark reputation precedes him. By the time he’s arrived to take charge of the situation, solving a problem that he can’t toil away at with his hands seems beyond him. As he’s in the process of grieving, in the back of our minds we remember that he occasionally goes to bars to self-medicate and provoke violence in an attempt to feel anything.
Lee arrives at the Hospital and his brother’s dear friend is standing with a nurse in the hallway opening holding back the news. In that moment Lee is expecting that his brother’s heart condition has merely occurred once again; unfortunately he has to hear that he’s actually slipped away. In the midst of everything else, his diligent arranging of coverage at his former job and battling afternoon traffic he arrives too late. Outwardly he’s restrained, shocked silence save for one brief reflexive “fuck,” he knows that he has to be the one that takes the news to his nephew. Before that though, he’s given permission to see the body. The frame holds so tight on Lee, we know that just out of our view lies the cold body of Joe. Lee shuffles towards the body and in brief momentary embrace you see the love and the loss. Lee reels out of the embrace and gentle kiss on the forehead, to regain his stiff isolation.
Lee is really just not ready for the world. He’s carved out a space for himself working hard in the outskirts of Boston, as a tenement super. His apartment is on site and feels more like a den than a home. He’s happily ignored by those that he’s working around; so much so that they’ll happily conduct private phone conversations right in front of him like he’s blending into the furniture. Facing the unexpected passing of his brother, despite Joe’s meticulous planning for the continuity of his family, leaves Lee feeling outmatched. Patrick, Joe’s son, on the other hand seems completely at ease with his father’s passing. With years of warning that this could occur, he’s prepared and rarely pulls back the curtain on teenage bravado. Hovering on the outskirts of the film is Michelle Williams playing Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. You get the sense that there’s going to be an eventual collision course between these characters and if you’re like me, you’re not sure that you’re going to be able to take it. Be ready; it’s like a soul-stirring comet crashing to earth.
The cinematography emphasises the space around Lee. It’s a visual amplification of the loneliness. The camera doesn’t crowd him; instead it gives him the space in his frame. Driving a car he’s occupying the right of frame in the driver’s seat; and there’s an empty seat. The vacancy around Lee becomes an obvious way that he’s able to keep some of his emotions under control. The ocean in “Manchester By The Sea” serves as a constant reminder of a better time, a better life through the fog of the present. Lee tries to escape the situation by looking through the windows in the homes and offices of Manchester to get temporary reprieve from whatever troubled interaction that he’s battling through. The ocean represents the time before this version of Lee. Lonergan’s trigger moment in the lawyer’s office drops us into a flashback. Underscored by the operatic ‘Adagio per arch e organ in G…’ we get to the moment that changed everything; pure devastation.
“Manchester By The Sea” isn’t all one draining exploration of despair. Lee’s attempts at civility and complete lack of being able to wrestle with any kind of small talk are a source of premium awkwardness and pressure valve releasing laughs. When people are trying really hard to be nice to Lee and his brain can’t compute it, you can’t help but laugh. Patrick’s entire 16 year old outlook is a source for many laughs. Lee is asked to lie on his behalf if girlfriend number one’s parents decide to call and confirm when she’s being made to sleep in the spare room, or as Lee chauffeurs him around the town to girlfriend number two’s house and asked to chat with her mother to ensure that her mother doesn’t interrupt any of his ‘progress’; there’s such an endearing obliviousness to the monkey brain of a testosterone fuelled brain of a teenager.
Lonergan’s work grits its teeth and faces true despair in the leading character Lee and lets the audience, through the supporting characters, laugh out loud with the triviality of small talk, well-meaning platitudes, and overwhelming sudden responsibility for someone’s life while you feel at odds with looking after yourself.
It’s so often that phrases like ‘breathtaking’ or ’stunning’ are bandied about. I was stunned by “Manchester By The Sea;” Lonergan’s melancholic journey, and Affleck’s Lee repeatedly took my breath away.
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Casey Affleck ... Lee Chandler
Lucas Hedges ... Patrick
Kyle Chandler ... Joe Chandler
Michelle Williams ... Randi Chandler
C.J. Wilson ... George
Ruibo Qian ... Dr. Bethany
Gretchen Mol ... Elise Chandler
Tom Kemp ... Stan Chandler
Chloe Dixon ... Suzy Chandler
Michelle Williams ... Randi Chandler