There are some awfully good moments in Manchester by the Sea, and there aren’t really any awful moments. The movie is a steadfast and somber swim inside the psyche of a man, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is stoically shouldering various levels of loss, grief and guilt. To that end, it flirts with melodrama and sometimes downright kisses it, mostly in scenes where the drunken and self-loathing Lee, perhaps seeking someone to punch but more likely needing to be punched himself, starts trouble at a bar. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, generally lauded for his taste, somehow loses track of it in some of the more emotional set pieces, cranking up the music, either diegetic (a song played in a bar) or non-diegetic (classical needle-drops, heavy on the Handel).
Some of the filmmaking is overbearing — a too-conscious choice on Lonergan’s part to meet audiences halfway after the box-office immolation of his cerebral 2011 drama Margaret — but some isn’t. Some of the awkward silences call attention to themselves — look, working-class dudes like Lee have so much they can’t express! — and some seem more organic. Many have pointed to the stop-and-start, inarticulate exchange late in the film between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Is it a great scene? It’s a great actors’ showcase for great actors, is what it is. Williams in particular sheds blood in the scene. But my irreverent brain kept pasting a neon “ACTING!” chyron over the bottom of the frame. It’s a theater-workshop exercise that does not, for me, reveal much.
Manchester by the Sea — not hyphenated, unlike its namesake town — follows Lee as he deals with being the new guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose father Joe (Kyle Chandler) has recently died of a heart attack. Patrick is very hooked into his life in Manchester¹; he has school, sports, two girlfriends, and a (terrible) band with a name only pretentious high-schoolers could devise: Stentorian. “We are Stentorian,” Patrick mumbles into the mic before the band kicks into a flailing attempt at guitar pop. The thing is, Lonergan can sometimes be heard announcing that, too. Is he a little embarrassed by the larger, sloppier, more audience-squeezing emotions his film is obligated to attend to?
Lee and Patrick have the kind of combative but ultimately loving relationship — plenty of mutual mouthing off — you generally see in a lot of lesser movies. At times this is a two-handed play, with various supporting characters drifting in and out as needed (C.J. Wilson, as a bearish friend of the family, gives what I may be alone in finding the best performance in the film — solid, credible, alive, human); even a grayer, thicker Matthew Broderick — a Lonergan good-luck talisman from the first — pops in as Patrick’s shiny new Christian stepdad. Casey Affleck burns in his own hell convincingly enough, but bringing in Kyle Chandler for a few taunting flashbacks is unfair to Affleck and cruel to us. Chandler might have made Lee readable and identifiable with an economy of motion. Affleck approaches Lee as a more depressive and less manic version of the Dunkin’ Donuts lout he played on Saturday Night Live, and so Lee is opaque, shut off from himself, his loved ones, and us.
The movie is this year’s Affliction or Precious, a miserablist portrait of the working class, who lack the poetry and wit and vocabulary to voice the upheavals within — according to movies like this, of course. (A corrective: the work of Harvey Pekar.) Lee seems to have little inner life even in the flashbacks when everything is fine — he keeps hopping on top of his sick then-wife, which makes him look like an insensitive twerp. It seems as though this couple were headed for the rocks even without the tragedy that separated them. Manchester by the Sea is not a stupid or poorly constructed movie; its central horror is much more wounding for playing out realistically, almost blandly. It’s not a project that originated with Lonergan, though, and maybe that’s the difference. He does his damnedest with it, and maybe now on the heels of this critical and commercial success he can return to his own playbook.
¹Manchester only became Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989.