Though Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” predominantly takes place in a provincial seaside Massachusetts community, the film is nonetheless universal, given how its main character, Lee (Casey Affleck), is coping with the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). That passing of a loved one, the memories it dredges up, the future it blurs, the present it turns haywire, is a familiar feeling to anyone. Then again, “Manchester by the Sea” is not entirely universal, because Lee’s ultimate grief, beyond his brother’s death, is so specific and so inconceivably awful that it strands Lee on an emotional island. In assuming that no one can know how he feels, or that no one wants to know how he feels, Lee has withdrawn utterly into himself. That sounds like one helluva distant main character, yet Affleck and Lonergan still manage to give us a glimpse behind that steel curtain, no mean feat.
Lee is numb on the outside, full of agony on the inside, an emotional conflict that is tricky to play. But Affleck excels, like in the hospital scene where he’s told of his brother’s death, where he stands rock still but with an expression suggesting that if he so much as moves, he might erupt. The only outlet he seems to feel he has for his pent-up agony is to be an asshole, which Affleck plays convincingly, no doubt informed by a personal life as documented in many outlets suggesting he really is an asshole. Hey, play what you are, right? We see his asshole tendencies in the tone-setting, table-setting sequences where Lee goes about his day job as a janitor at some Boston apartment building, un-clogging pipes, trying not to blow up at the tenants, which he finally does, not reluctantly or even furiously, just wearily, like whatever, who cares, fuck you. But he is forced to care in a hurry when he arrives in Manchester and is confronted by his late brother’s will. Lee, it turns out, has been named guardian of Joe’s sixteen year old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
If Lonergan’s previous film “Margaret” was teeming with literate intellectuals, “Manchester by the Sea” is populated primarily by people for whom giving shit is a first language. That’s not to say these people cannot be warm. They can, and are, usually within moments of all the B.S. Look no further than the scene in which Patrick sits around with his girlfriend and a couple pals just after getting the news about his dad, conversations ping ponging wildly but convincingly from melancholy to humor to weird, patchy spaces in-between.
The character of Patrick, in fact, is one of the more credible teenagers I can recall being captured on screen. When asked how his nephew is doing, Lee observes that he thinks Patrick is doing ok, but he can’t quite tell, because teenagers don’t really allow you tell, which is exactly how Patrick is written and Hedges plays the part. He seems almost oddly jovial in spite of the heavy loss he has sustained, with a life as messy as any teenager, where he seems to still be processing simply how to live in general, which sort of overrides processing the loss he’s sustained. He’s so casual so often that you can almost see Lee looking at him in the manner Bad Santa looked at Thurman Merman so many years ago. “Are you f***in with me?”
The inevitable relationship that emerges between Lee and Patrick, the film’s crux, never becomes the mentor/protégé we are conditioned to expect. It is something far more natural, which is to say it is something far more confusing, with Lee actively resisting the role of mentor even as his own resistant nature to the idea of being a mentor paradoxically gives Patrick additional space to organically figure things out and even as he councils Patrick in no uncertain terms on certain matters, like Patrick’s potentially re-kindling his relationship with his estranged mom (Gretchen Mol), which manifests itself in a single scene evincing Lonergan’s peerless ability to conjure the sensation of a whole messy life off screen in a few brushes. (The words string beans have never felt so loaded.)
If it’s difficult for Patrick to understand why Lee would be so hesitant to stepping up as guardian, it’s just as difficult for us, that much more of an indicator of Lee’s jerk tendencies. Another movie might have this a slow move toward redemption, but Lonergan forges an alternate path, employing the flashbacks to Lee’s past with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three kids, going off like firecrackers of the consciousness, as a peeling back toward the tragedy that prompts Lee’s resistance. The tragedy will not be revealed, but is unspeakable, if accidental, if not necessarily entirely accidental, emblematic of those gray areas in which Lonergan specializes. But suffice it to say, that it’s revelation offers a clearer picture of Lee’s dour motivations, a place where forgiveness just sounds like some cheap noun.
Joe, in fact, seems to be trying to offer that forgiveness from beyond the grave, just as Randi tries to offer it in a late film sequence where she and Lee have a brief encounter on the street. It’s heart-wrenching scene, where Lee simply cannot accept the olive branch Randi is so gently trying to offer, partially because he can’t allow himself to. Look at the way the actress as Randi’s friend (Danae Nason) plays this scene, with covert, side-eyed, suspicious glances of Lee. It’s the way everyone looks at Lee; it’s the way we look at Lee; it’s the way Lee has come to look at himself. And if it is cruel to admit that Lonergan offers his protagonist no path to redemption, it is no less true. A movie so fiercely honest would be so much less so if it tried to tell us otherwise.