I have always believed that it is possible for a human being to break, or to be broken, beyond repair. It is this level of brokenness, that of being beyond repair, that is at the core of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's extraordinary journey through inexplicable grief, Manchester by the Sea.
The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a reclusive apartment building janitor in Boston whose entire aura seems to have become swallowed up inside a black hole. When Lee's phone rings informing him that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away, he reluctantly returns to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea mostly out of a sense of familial responsibility driven more by intellect than human connection. It is only after being named sole guardian for Joe's son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), that Lee's seemingly irreparable brokenness must somehow be challenged if he is to rise to the challenge of raising a grieving teenager while rising from his own ashes.
Lonergan, who also wrote and directed You Can Count on Me and Margaret, has crafted a remarkable cinematic experience possessing uncommon honesty and insight into the kind of life-changing grief that completely alters a human being's experience and life path. To his credit, Lonergan realizes that grief is not simply one thing and it doesn't even fit neatly within the framework of Kubler-Ross's stages. Instead, grief, and certainly Lee's grief, is a fluid experience that ebbs and flows, rocks and rolls, demands rage and coaxes humor like no other life experience.
At first glance, Affleck's Lee doesn't seem all that too far removed from Affleck's own public persona as the quieter and modestly quirkier Affleck whose demons have occasionally gotten the best of him and whose life seems, at least through a public lens, to be rather nondescript.
But, of course, there's more.
While it may be tempting to conclude that Affleck isn't actually acting all that much, rest assured that the kind of intimate vulnerability and quiet seething that Affleck brings to life inside Lee is the kind of performance we've absolutely never seen from the mostly indie actor whose greatest notoriety may very well have come from his directorial work on the bizarre Joaquin Phoenix indie I'm Still Here. It's easy to forget that Affleck actually is an acclaimed and Oscar-nominated actor, as Best Supporting Actor for 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but Manchester by the Sea is set to remind Hollywood that Casey Affleck isn't simply the "other" Affleck.
Manchester by the Sea may sound like a complete downer, but Lonergan's wise and authentic script serves up moments of naturally resulting humor and moments, admittedly fleeting, when we are allowed room to breathe and to laugh and to sigh and to exhale. There are times when the story is awkward but, then again, there are times when grief is awkward. In real life, we don't always make it to our loved one's bedside before they pass away and in real life sometimes those necessary but awkward conversations about matters of death don't come across as anything but awkward conversations about matters of death.
Real life isn't Hollywood. Real life is awkward.
Of course, there is also life before brokenness and even for the broken human being it never completely fades from memory. Lonergan paints these memories mostly through flashbacks back to a time when Lee was seemingly happy or at least happy within Lee's capacity for happiness. Happily married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and a valued member of the Manchester fishing community, Lee's life hasn't always been broken even if, just perhaps, there were glimpses of things to come.
When Lonergan finally allows us into Lee's tragic past, Manchester by the Sea becomes nothing short of a remarkable piece of filmmaking, a simple yet unthinkable tragedy that, I will confess, had me sobbing silently in my own chair partly out of being completely engrossed in the scene and partly in the ways it hinted of my own life experiences. While we live in a drive-thru society that likes to pretend that with enough support and perseverance we can all transcend our traumatic experiences, the simple truth is that we don't all transcend our greatest tragedies. Sometimes, those tragedies ripple for generations and change us forever.
Manchester by the Sea is bravura filmmaking featuring bravura performances from its ensemble cast. As has been thoroughly noted, Affleck gives a career-best performance and will most assuredly be remembered come awards season. Lucas Hedges, whose big breakthrough was as Redford in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, gives a breakout performance as Patrick, a young man simultaneously grieving and quietly moving on the very best he can with equal doses of delayed grief and dry humor. Taking a role that could have so easily been played as one-note, Michelle Williams is mesmerizing as Randi, Lee's ex-wife whose own journey changes when Lee arrives back in town. Oscar noms for both Hedges and Williams are certainly not out of the question.
There are fleeting moments when Manchester by the Sea threatens to derail into unnecessary sentimentality or cliche', but Lonergan never lets the film cross that line with only an unnecessary brief appearance by Matthew Broderick, as Jeffrey, lacking the authenticity that radiates throughout the rest of the film.
If we're being honest, grief is seldom portrayed well on the big screen as it tends to either become a laughing matter or an overwhelmingly depressing one. In reality, the grief journey is so much more and, indeed, Manchester by the Sea is so much more and that, in the end, is what makes it one of 2016's finest cinematic efforts.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic