Manchester by the Sea is a title that conjures a sense of mood more than place, even though the film’s regional specificity is keenly inscribed and integral to the story and its characters. The mood is sad and melancholic, though not without humor, and unabashedly true to life. The depth of the sorrow is apparent from the outset, but the reasons for the pain unfold one flap at a time, like a semi-transparent glassine envelope. In sustaining this tone through to the end, Manchester by the Sea attains a certain narrative mystery and spiritual grace for acknowledging despair as an organic aspect of life and valid response to some of its undeserved slings and arrows.
Casey Affleck’s visceral performance as the story’s lead character, Lee Chandler, is essential to the film’s excellence. All the film’s key actors deliver matchless performances (one of the ingredients that makes Manchester so sublime), but Affleck here has the role of his lifetime. For the most part, Lee manages to keep his internal upset in check with hard work and solitude, but his emotional dyspepsia gurgles beneath his outwardly placid surface, coloring the care he invests in words and actions and sometimes erupting into senseless bar-fighting or a fist through a windowpane. He lives alone in a bleak basement burrow of a Boston apartment building where he’s the on-call custodian. He shovels snow from the walks, takes out the trash, unclogs toilets, and fixes leaks and electrical problems, all while failing to humor the vexed residents and rejecting easy sexual come-ons. It’s a maintenance existence in every sense of the word. Then he receives a phone call that disrupts everything.
The call leads him back to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Lee’s hometown community north of Boston, where his brother Joe (Chandler) and nephew Patrick (played by Ben O’Brien as a child and Lucas Hedges as a 16-year-old) still live. Joe, a fisherman with a run-down boat, is seriously ill, and teenage Patrick is in need of a guardian. Despite his brother’s wishes, Lee knows he is not up to the task. The bulk of the film concerns the pas de deux between Lee and Patrick, both of them dealing with grief: Lee from the perspective of his haunted past and conflicted present, and Patrick from his perch as a callow teen and maturing young man.
It’s best to discover the remaining details of the film on your own rather than have them laid out in advance. That’s not because there are any great twists or shocking revelations, but because the film’s pleasure lies in the experience of it. The naturalism of the dialogue by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), the consequent silences between characters, and the staging of their awkward interactions are among the many joys to be found in the work. The peerless actors match and elevate Lonergan’s artistry beat for beat. And the film’s greatest gift of all may be that it declines to tidy up after itself, prettifying life’s messiness with a finishing bow. In the end, it’s the package that counts, not the wrapping.
Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.