Watching Manchester by the Sea, I was reminded of two lines from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch: “I cry, because I will laugh if I don’t” and “I laugh, because I will cry if I don’t”.
Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film is filled with contradictory emotions sometimes occupying the space of the same scene. There are moments of extreme melodrama as well as moments of quiet subtlety. There’s a family tragedy with a teen sex mini-movie embedded within. There’s slapstick as someone in distress is wheeled into an ambulance. Something about this mix of high and low feels so painfully and hilariously real.
Thinking about this movie, in my head I see the jagged line of a seismograph during a series of earthquakes, some big, some small. That’s an expressionistic portrait of Manchester by the Sea, one of the best movies of 2016.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Release Date: November 18, 2016 (limited)
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives in a small room in Boston. He’s prickly and withdrawn, a brooding guy who spends a lot of time alone. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown to help settle affairs with Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Whenever Lee’s name is mentioned, people around town perk up. They’re surprised, shocked, that Lee Chandler, the Lee Chandler, is back. He’s got a reputation for something. There’s a reason he’s avoided home.
Affleck’s troubled quiet is remarkable to watch. It’s a nuanced performance built around restraint. I found myself wondering throughout the film what moments would cause his stoic facade to collapse. There’s such an immense heartbreak and guilt in him, which is clear even before his past is revealed, yet he doesn’t want to share his emotional and psychological burden with anyone else. As penitent as he is, an intimate human connection would hurt even more. He’d rather get drunk and get beat up. Lonergan drops several telling flashbacks, and he finds elegant ways to loop the past into the present and then out again. It adds dimension to Lee, and Affleck is superb at playing the same man in different keys.
Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi, whose character is similarly constrained by her emotions. She wants to speak about their history together, but doing that may be more painful than staying bottled up. A phone call early in the film captures the tense awkwardness of two people who want to say more, say everything, but can’t bring themselves to say much of anything. Williams has always been an excellent and underrated actress, and part of me wanted more of her in the film. It would be a different sort of movie. Manchester by the Sea is more about Lee and to a certain extent his nephew Patrick and the shortcomings of masculine tropes when it comes to raw emotional life. On the one hand the male-dominated story feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it also emphasizes Lee and Patrick’s solitude. With regard to family, this man and this boy are all that’s left in each other’s lives.
The restraint in the lives of the characters may explain why I responded so much to the emotional highs and lows of Manchester by the Sea. It’s the catharsis for the audience that the characters can’t give themselves. All of the funny and sad material gives an alternately absurd and humane texture to these lives. Even the material that doesn’t seem like it fits in a streamlined narrative–such as an unexpected but perfect cameo appearance, or Patrick’s teenage horndog shtick–enrich the sad, beautiful whole. Admittedly this seismographic portrait of people’s lives doesn’t work for everyone. I had a pretty spirited back-and-forth with my friend and fellow film critic Nathanael Hood, and he was lukewarm on the film’s jagged contours.
Lonergan finds quiet and stillness amid mood swings, and also offers the actors ample room to emote or withhold. Frozen chicken falls from the freezer and a person finally breaks down; someone offers a small tip for service and the other person doesn’t know how to interpret that sort of kindness. I laughed, I cried, and I laughed. All of the funny moments are punctuated by an unremitting sadness. Lee is comically bad at small talk and social gatherings, but the reasons for it, like so much about Manchester by the Sea, are so personal and painful.