By: Daniel Reynolds
There’s no real way to set a film based around grief in a tropical location. Sure, people in warm climates deal with death and sadness too, but cognitively, visually, there’s nothing quite like the cold to drive misery home. So it is in Manchester by the Sea, the delicate and powerful new film from Kenneth Lonergan. The film’s opening images are a montage of winter scenery, and of Casey Affleck‘s Lee Chandler as he handles various building management duties in Quincy, Massachusetts — tossing out garbage, changing light bulbs, and shovelling snow. The snow is ever-present in Manchester by the Sea, obscuring, coating, and, in its way, marking the time. The snow sets the tone.
To gain insight into Lee, those opening scenes are instructive. There’s nothing here save for a going through of the motions of life; Lee works, drinks and collapses in front of the TV in his basement apartment. Sometimes, when TV won’t do, he picks a fight. When a call comes to tell him his older brother Joe is dead, it shakes him out of his doldrums, but only by the slightest of degrees. Now Lee must go back home — to his brother’s house, to his nephew Patrick, and to a looming past. The brother is played by ultimate good guy Kyle Chandler, captain of a commercial fishing vessel, and father to Patrick (played as a gregarious teen by Lucas Hedges). In flashback, we meet both and understand their relationship to Lee. Far from being intrusive, these recurring scenes function as intersecting and overlapping memories, providing both context and shading to the present. Despite the news, Lee gives away little of himself and Affleck plays him as a man hunched and withdrawn, his eyes taking everything in like a boxer meeting a fist. Joe’s death seems to barely register in him, while pal George (C.J. Wilson) breaks down and breathlessly promises to help out, make calls, handle arrangements. It’s clear Lee has buried more.
The stress of Manchester by the Sea is found here, in Lee’s internal conflict with himself. The outward process of the film concerns the humdrum machinations of death — funeral arrangements, business management, and the not small note of guardianship of Patrick. It’s this last point that stirs up the obvious grief within Lee, and sets the movie on edge. There’s no room in his physical and spiritual one-room apartment for a new person. How Lonergan balances that tone with one of equal warmth and humour is what sets the film apart from other dramas that trade in tears and sadness. Manchester by the Sea acknowledges, like Lonergan’s epic (and, some would say, masterpiece) Margaret, the continuation of life, how the day-to-day actions of suffering people must carry on regardless.
In a similar vein, again as with Margaret, Lonergan is unafraid to roam within the cinematic world he creates. Lee is the centre of this film, the flashbacks are his, the emotional arc bends to his actions. But time is given to, for example, Patrick, his two girlfriends (who don’t know about each other) and his aimless band rehearsals; even his hockey coach (Tate Donovan) gets a scene to speak his mind. There are moments for jokes with George, we see glimpses of the man Joe was, and then there is not one ex-wife, but two. The first, Joe’s ex Elise, is a recovering alcoholic played by Gretchen Mol, seen mostly in the mind’s eye or via email, save for a small, painfully tense reunion sequence shared by her, Patrick, and new husband (brought to life by Lonergan’s pal Matthew Broderick). The second, Randi, carries far more emotional weight and gets a couple of knockout scenes. She’s played by Michelle Williams, who, if it needs to be said, is an actress you want for knockout scenes. She is Lee’s ex, but her role (and absence) in his life is left a mystery for most of the film’s first half. That is until Lee’s memories, brought on by this new encounter with death, surge to the surface again and the riptide pull of Manchester makes it impossible for him to ignore his past.
To achieve this careful balance between life and death, Lonergan exhibits a fantastic empathy for his characters and their relatively tiny lives. His writing never strikes the wrong note, which is all the more remarkable considering the symphony being conducted here. To aid that effort, special mention must be made of the film’s editing (by Jennifer Lame), the sharpness of which allows for both the slackness of daily life and a ruthlessness in capturing the acute forces of familial grief and love. Lonergan may locate the film in one time, but he’s able to move it deftly forward and backward to shape moments of terrifying power. The viewer is never left confused as to the where and when, however. Adding to this is the score, largely of classical music, which invests a grandiosity to the film’s most moving scenes. Lonergan goes out of his way to frame the people of Manchester by the Sea as small, but the scale of their feeling demands largeness. Considered as a whole, the marshalling of all these details is a wonder. The film’s focus may wander, as a reflection of real life, but its attention to craft is dogged.
In an essay on the subject, the writer Teju Cole calls grief “a frightening condition, and at its extreme [is] like the sun: impossible to look at directly.” In watching Manchester by the Sea we can see this quotation come to cinematic life. At the outset, we worry for Lee and are afraid of what he might do to himself or others. We wonder about the effect his presence will have on Patrick. We brace for the worst. In its process, the film digresses, distracts, has fun — but in all things it keeps spiralling back to the impossible blaze at its centre. Because the real fright, as Lonergan and the film know, is this: there is no solution to grief, only the warmth of life — that sun — to melt the snow and offer a path on which to continue. It’s a small comfort perhaps, but at least it’s there.