The finest films tend to engage fervently with their specific time and place; entertaining the bigger picture as well as those more effectively intimate spaces. For Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the solitary sad sack at the heart of Kenneth Lonergan’s devastatingly beautiful MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, the coastal Massachusetts town of the film’s namesake – which he is summoned to upon the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) – represents the abode of old bones, a wretched abyss from which he never truly escaped.
This painfully resonant examination of grief has the tendency to feel almost operatic – due in no small part to Lesley Barber’s unforgettably somber score – but it is perhaps even more indebted to the director’s history as a successful playwright. With this being his third feature at the helm, it would appear Lonergan has established a comfortable middle ground between naturalism and artifice; conversations and evocatively-lit interiors evoking the essence of a hang-out flick at times, but without the same redemptive tranquility, and the most ample truths are recouped from awkward silence.
Lee seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders from the moment he’s introduced, serving the unappreciative tenants of the apartment complex where he works as a janitor. On top of that, his relationship with the bottle proves somewhat detrimental, and agonizing flashbacks bleed into everyday reality so seamlessly, and constantly, that the transitions tend to appear rather subtle at first. It’s only when Lee returns to his home town and discovers that he is to become the legal guardian of his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) that the most painful memories of all permeate his psyche once again.
This extended flashback is as close to a revelatory moment as the viewer is going to get, but granted a better understanding of Lee’s history, it’s much easier to empathize with his plight. He’s simply a man attempting to subvert his sins, stuck in his own moderately self-imposed limbo. For him, Manchester signifies suspicious stares, possibly seeing Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife who shares in his suffering, on the streets, and having to confront several decades worth of honest failures; it’s no longer just a picturesque setting.
One look into Affleck’s cold, inconsolable eyes inspires immediate compassion; everyone here is marvelous, but he’s never been better, and in less capable hands the character could have been a one trick pony. His world is a deeply disturbed one, and though there’s plenty of comic relief on the road to redemption, it remains a carefully crafted crescendo of melancholy. If it’s even there to begin with, the happy ending is well out of reach, but what Lonergan provides in its place is even more enduring. As a celebration of the little moments that can either make or break who we are – like, for instance, a panic attack brought on by frozen meat – and who we’re meant to be, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an invaluable testament to inordinate darkness giving way to understated wisdom as well as progress in its many, obscured forms.