Ever since seeing his directorial debut, You Can Count on Me, back in 2000, I have been eagerly awaiting the chance to see another movie by Kenneth Lonergan. But he had such trouble with Margaret (arguments with Fox Searchlight Pictures over the final cut kept the movie out of circulation for years after shooting ended) that it seemed to come and go before most of the public even knew it existed. For a while, he retreated to Off-Broadway, gravely disappointed with what had happened with his life and career.
Perhaps making a film centered on Lee Chandler, the taciturn, tormented soul of Manchester by the Sea, was therapeutic for Lonergan: no matter how angry, even self-pitying, the director-screenwriter might have felt, his problems could never compare with those afflicting this janitor/handyman.
Lee’s natural habitat is New England in mid-winter: Warmth and light have disappeared from his life. He capably performs his work—shoveling snow, cleaning out toilets, and other assorted jobs. But he never smiles, never becomes emotionally involved with anyone—and frequently annoys tenants and gets into drunken brawls in bars.
In the mid-19th century, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick described similar spiritual desolation: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
As I watched Lonergan’s quiet but profoundly moving drama, I couldn’t help associating Lee with Melville’s narrator Ishmael: the tight mouth, the “damp, drizzly” environment, funerals, even punching people one hardly knows. Lee, however, doesn’t have Ishmael’s option. The sea, where he and his brother Joe cemented tight bonds of freedom and fellowship, is now closed off, like everything else in his life, in a fog of grief and self-laceration.
Flashbacks show both Lee’s happier times and the catastrophe that ended his children’s lives, his marriage and, seemingly, any hope that he might emerge from his self-imposed life sentence.
But in the present, Lee is, despite himself, jolted out of his numbed isolation: Joe has not only died of a heart attack, but named his brother as guardian of his teenage son Patrick—and even financially facilitated Lee’s move back to Manchester, the town that knows all too well the source of his anguish.
The role of Lee was supposed to go to Matt Damon, but prior commitments led him to withdraw and accept a producer credit. Instead, the part went to Casey Affleck.
A decade ago, Affleck (pictured) performed unexpectedly well in his brother Ben’s adaptation of the Dennis Lehane detective novel Gone, Baby, Gone, and even was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But offscreen, his participation in a hoax by Joaquin Phoenix and involvement in sexual harassment lawsuits filed by two women (since settled) sidelined him from consideration for roles that might otherwise have come his way.
Now, his performance as Lee thrusts Affleck back into the Hollywood casting conversation. His slow gait and dead eyes reveal more than words can the emotional numbness of his character. To its credit, Lonergan’s script does not provide Lee with an easy way to grace, and Affleck provides this haunted man with a physical tightness that makes his strangled despair easy to understand.
One expects Lonergan, given his background as a playwright and screenwriter, to excel at dialogue, but he also shows an instinct here for emblematic silent moments (e.g., the agony of watching an EMT unit hoist a gurney carrying a loved one into the ambulance)
He also provides multiple members of the supporting cast with moments to shine: not only Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randy (in a scene, almost sure to earn her an Oscar nomination, when she vents her anguish in order to get Lee to release his); but also Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler as Joe; Gretchen Mol as Joe’s brittle ex-wife, an alcoholic he doesn’t dare trust to raise his son; Matthew Broderick (a frequent star in Lonergan plays and films) as her new pious boyfriend; and even Lonergan, in a cameo as a pedestrian who, with one remark, goads Lee into one of his rages.
Manchester by the Sea runs counter to the action-packed drama that Hollywood loves. Slow-moving, naturalistic, it thrives on an intense focus on character and refuses to pander to audiences’ wishes for a snap ending that ties everything up in a nice big bow. It simply has the ring of truth about the way that ordinary people live their lives. Let’s hope that during awards season, it is properly recognized.