Kenneth Lonergan has made three movies in his 16-year-old career, all effortlessly profound. His first, You Can Count on Me, was a tiny masterpiece about two grown siblings who’ve grown apart and meet decades after their parents’ premature death. His second, Margaret, was about a young woman testing the kind of person she wants to become after (maybe) instigating a horrific accident. Superficially, nothing much happens in either outside of the formative trauma. But emotionally, they’re volcanic. At the end of each, you feel like you’ve witnessed something precise and monumental. If I felt more comfortable making grand statements, I’d say that Lonergan’s movies are about the human condition.
In his third, Manchester by the Sea, we meet Lee Chandler. He has levity and warmth in him; we know because we glimpse his him fishing with his preteen nephew, Patrick, teasing about sharks hurling themselves into the air. But those fragments don’t square with the person in the present: a troubled husk whose eyes have a shark’s glazed-over lifelessness. Played by Casey Affleck (who amplifies the half-vacant physical volatility he brought to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Lee has settled into a stunted, anesthetized routine punctuated by violent, self-defeating outbursts. (He spends his nights and weekends throwing pointless punches at crummy bars.) Then, on a day like any other, Lee answers a phone call; his older brother Joe has had a heart attack back home. By the time he arrives from Boston, Joe is dead.
An overcast and chilly idyll, Manchester is a small place. Joe was popular; Lee’s homecoming isn’t so warmly received. In hushed asides, people mummer and ask whether that’s at the Lee Chandler as if they’ve seen a ghost. He’s been excommunicated; something awful happened. Forced to settle Joe’s affairs and care for the now-teenaged Patrick, Lee reluctantly engages with a world and feelings he’d long ago severed, and we start to connect the Lee we know with the one glimpsed in another lifetime. We come to discover that Lee has indeed done something awful, if not unforgivable. But it isn’t the kind of tragedy where blame falls cleanly. Lee isn’t a monster, and there’s something intensely human in the way he confronts and dodges his own culpability and absolution. (The movie’s climactic confrontation is an eruption of half-broken sentences and guarded body language, and I can barely think about it without coming to tears.)
In many ways, Manchester by the Sea is both an extension to and the culmination of Lonergan’s previous work. The movie tackles his pet themes with the same insatiable inevitability that nagged Bergman. But he’s more assured here than ever. Margaret’s subtle formal experimentation suggested an artistic leap, and while Manchester is less ambitious, its drama is more measured and express. With the movie’s not-quite-linear structure, Lonergan lures you into Lee’s head, a place where past and present are in constant flux and combat, sculpting a world where the interior and the exterior—the comic and the tragic—exist in overlapping proximity. The way a few paramedics attempt to roll a broken gurney into an ambulance turns a moment of unspeakable horror into something bordering on pathetically funny. In a movie that addresses the impossibility of verbal communication—the way posture or a glance conveys bottomless pits of emotion—it’s a scene that demonstrates the inaccuracy of that old bromide: whatever doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. Really, what doesn’t kill us leaves us stranded, knee deep in the ashes, with only the coming minutes, days, and years—the forward march of time—to remind us of our stupid, hilarious, beautiful survival.
Manchester by the Sea. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Kyle Chandler. Opens in Kansas City on December 9, 2016.