IF YOU’VE EVER seen Shane Meadows’ brilliant Dead Man’s Shoes, you’ll know how unsettling it is when characters talk about someone in hushed, fearful tones. In Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s ‘Anthony’s brother’, back from the war. In the similarly bleak Manchester by the Sea it’s the tragic, withdrawn figure of Lee Chandler, who is forced to return home after the death of his brother.
Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor at an apartment complex in a Boston suburb who spends his days shovelling snow and scrubbing toilets and his nights knocking back pints in a bar. It’s clear that something dark has happened in his past – something dark enough to turn the funny and likeable man shown in flashbacks into the haunted, apathetic figure of the present. But there’s a strange serenity to the colourless life that Lee leads: he drifts through the day and drinks through the night and nothing really changes – that is, until the collapse of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces him out of his routine, and he’s told he has to look after his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him.
At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him, speaking to no one except his boss and the ungrateful residents of the apartments he maintains. His interactions only reassert that despondency and a threat of violence that Affleck depicts so well through the hunched shoulders and the hands stuffed in pockets and the glassy-eyed gazes. In flashbacks full of colour and energy, he’s a different man. He jokes with his brother on their boat and smothers his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) with drunken, boyish affection, and all you can wonder is what unspeakable, unthinkable thing could have happened to turn this man into that one.
Manchester by the Sea is all about Lee Chandler, and therefore so much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of its lead, and Affleck gives an exceptionally controlled performance that is very probably his best to date, never seeming stoic or sociopathic but tightly clenched and deeply self-loathing, always on the verge of rage. He’s short on dialogue for the first act of the film but is still completely engrossing.
Affleck, of course, has the benefit of a talented cast of co-stars. Michelle Williams’s role, though significant, is small – too small for her to be billed as a central character – but she plays it well. The scenes in which she appears are the most memorable of the film. Meanwhile Kyle Chandler does that gentle, paternal thing he always does so well as Lee’s brother Joe, while Lucas Hedges turns in a convincing performance as the outgoing Patrick, who spends much of the film in the passenger seat of Lee’s car, on the way to band practice or school. While Patrick is busy with friends and sport and schoolwork, Lee seems simply to have no reserves of grief left, and their scenes offer some relief from the gloominess and pessimism that pervades the film.
Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering.
Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering. When his brother dies, Lee has to fill out forms and sort out finances, highlighting the endlessness of his personal misery and the tedious everyday realities that follow a death. In other scenes Lee can’t find where he’s parked his car or has to reheat a pizza, and somehow through these minor events his every gesture betrays the deep and all-consuming sorrow he’ll never be able to overcome.
The first half of Manchester by the Sea is better than the second, and at around the hour and fifteen minute mark the pace slows to a crawl. Though it gathers in pace towards the end it still feels a fraction too long, and Lonergan is so focused on Lee that we see too little of Randi and her inner world, and the film seems weaker for it. But Manchester by the Sea is a brilliant film, because Lonergan, whose last film, Margaret, was released five years ago to critical acclaim, isn’t selling some romantic notion of grief – he’s offering realism. The wounds made by loss, Lonergan insists, never really heal. Manchester by the Sea is heartbreaking and exhausting, and a shining cinematic study of individual suffering.