If Kenneth Lonergan’s three films as director tell us anything, it is that the filmmaker, playwright and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter has no interest in making us feel good. Lonergan is a master at presenting damaged characters who are often emotionally disconnected from the world around them, utterly unlikeable and, at times, almost unbearable in their social dysfunction. Whether it’s Mark Ruffalo’s ne’er-do-well younger brother to Laura Linney’s single mum in You Can Count on Me or Anna Paquin’s self-absorbed title character in the superb Margaret, Lonergan has an uncanny knack of crafting characters that are so utterly compelling in their unpleasantness that we somehow remain interested in their plight. Mixing the darkest of moments with flashes of humour, Manchester by the Sea is audacious and uncomfortable, but utterly mesmerising in its exploration of grief, guilt and forgiveness. As was the case with Lonergan’s two previous films, much of the credit for their success lies with the actors who take on the challenge of such roles and, having prised great turns from Linney, Ruffalo and Paquin, Lonergan presents Casey Affleck with an opportunity to showcase his considerable acting chops and boy does he deliver with a gobsmackingly good performance as the masochistic, depressive Lee Chandler.
Lee is a brooding, irritable loner who lives in a small basement apartment in Boston and works as a handyman/janitor. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly, Lee returns to the sleepy fishing town of his youth to discover that he has been granted guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee clearly has some affection for Patrick, as shown in the flashback that opens the film, but it is a mystery to everybody, and Lee especially, why Joe has handed him parental responsibility. It’s clear that Lee is a damaged soul but Lonergan takes his sweet time in revealing the nature of the tragedy that has left him a broken man. When we do finally discover the cause of his emotional malaise, it is perhaps even worse than we might have imagined, but it does make it easier to understand why Lee is so resistant to taking on the role that Joe has assigned to him. He just doesn’t trust himself to take on the responsibilities, not the least of which is a long-term relocation to Manchester, the town that serves as a daily reminder of what transpired some 10 years earlier.
Lee is visibly bristling with anger and self-loathing and Affleck is astounding in his portrayal of a man buried under the weight of emotional trauma. It is a brutal, emotionally raw performance that is compelling to watch. Lee is so utterly unlikeable that even becoming aware of the tragedy fails to prevent you from cringing anytime he finds himself struggling to connect with another human being. He can’t do small talk and is averse to conversation generally and, even though witnessing these exchanges is as awkward for the viewer as it is for Lee, you just can’t look away. The support players are also excellent, with Michelle Williams delivering yet another knockout turn as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, a woman desperate to make amends for her treatment of Lee in the aftermath of the events that destroyed their marriage and left them both emotionally scarred, while Hedges brings some much-needed humour to break the tension as a very typical teenage boy; he plays hockey, is in a band and has a couple of girlfriends on the go, one of which is played by Anna Baryshnikov, the daughter of ballet legend Mikhail. The other is played by Moonrise Kingdom’s Kara Hayward, with the likes of Tate Donovan, Matthew Broderick and Gretchen Mol also featuring in supporting roles.
Manchester by the Sea is certainly no larger-than-life studio blockbuster and anybody expecting some trite, feel-good conclusion is going to be disappointed. This is a complex story about the importance of forgiveness, not so much from others but from yourself, and the difficulty in achieving that in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. Whilst still in the early stages of his directorial career, thus far Lonergan has a 100% strike rate of success (where the measurement is quality, not box office) and Manchester by the Sea might just be his best yet, which is saying something given that both You Can Count on Me and Margaret are outstanding. Harrowing at times, Manchester by the Sea is an intimate, affecting character-driven film that deserves to be seen.