A wrenching family tragedy is dramatized with the depth of a high-quality American stage piece in Manchester by the Sea.
Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature film since his debut 16 years ago with his Sundance entry You Can Count on Me is deeply rooted in its New England setting and characters, led by the traumatized, working-class Joe played by Casey Affleck in what is by far his most impressive and deeply felt screen performance to date.
The overextended second half shouldn’t be too difficult to trim down to bring the film closer to a two-hour running time, which would make this a good bet for a class distributor looking for a full-bodied autumn release.
Although Manchester never feels stagy and is deeply enriched by the mostly coastal communities in which it is set, this is clearly the work of a writer who knows his way around creating characters and emotional dynamics in a manner more evident in works for the stage than for screens big or small.
Instead of using shorthand, Lonergan layers and then layers some more, allows his characters to stew, not always disclose themselves and then come to decisions and changes naturally, or after due deliberation. And they can relapse and not always be ready for the breakthrough moment toward which the story seems to be pointing. The result is something that feels more akin to a full meal than the usual cinematic popcorn.
At the outset, the leading character could not be less prepossessing. Lee Chandler (Affleck) works as a handyman in some Boston apartment buildings, cleaning toilets, shoveling snow, behaving rudely. One night, he provokes a fight in a bar. He seems like an ass, a no-account. Some brief ocean-fishing flashbacks show him as close to his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and the latter’s young son Patrick, but that’s long ago.
Abruptly, Joe dies of congestive heart failure, which not only results in the woefully ill-suited Lee suddenly becoming guardian for the now-16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges), but also exposes the numerous rifts in the family; there are a lot of burned bridges here, and Lee is in no way equipped or emotionally disposed to try to repair them.
Still, there are legal responsibilities to be faced and rituals to be performed, forcing some contact most of the family would prefer to avoid. As word gets around, there are whispers about “the Lee Chandler,” suggesting a notoriety about him in these parts, and Lonergan neatly shuffles the dramaturgical deck to introduce information that will later come to the fore.
Among the seeds planted are Lee’s past marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams), now entirely out of the picture, along with their two daughters, similarly missing, and Patrick’s mother Elise (Gretchen Mol), whose absence, in the light of the boy’s father’s death, throws responsibility for him to Lee. For fully an hour, Lonergan makes these seemingly mundane characters and situations intriguing and interesting; one is assured that we’re just seeing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that will eventually be filled in. Sure enough, the big event, the tragedy that changed all the characters’ lives forever, is revealed at the one-hour point. It’s a devastating occurrence, to be sure, but one with nuances of responsibility and shades of gray in terms of the potential ramifications for those who will have to deal with it for the rest of their lives.
How the characters cope and relate after this is emotionally and psychologically fraught and often powerful, but the focus narrows down to Lee’s relationship with the teenaged Patrick. The latter confounds his uncle by his constant screwing around with local girls, while Lee continues to wrestle with his responsibilities toward the kid and, briefly, Randi’s renewed emotionalism.
Everything Lonergan serves up is arguably germane, but the pace noticeably slackens in the second half; some of the uncle/nephew scenes feel repetitive and the dramatic destination begins to feel like it’s just being pushed further and further down the track. The feeling here is that removing somewhere around 10 minutes from this section would be all to the good.
From certain angles now resembling a scruffy version of the late Patrick McGoohan, Affleck goes deeper here than ever before, his odd posturing, hesitations and sometimes scratchy speech now all seeming like a meaningful outgrowth and expression of his complex character, no longer sometimes affectations. Young Hedges, perhaps best known for his appearances in two Wes Anderson films, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, has a lot more to work with here and thoroughly impresses.
Williams shares an extremely emotional late scene with Affleck that’s written in a very daring way, with their characters pushing adamantly in completely opposite directions and using different styles of expression; it almost comes off, but not quite. In a different way, a stilted luncheon reunion between Patrick and his mother and his previously unmet new stepfather (Matthew Broderick) feels rather archly artificial and unconvincing.
Producer Matt Damon was set to play the leading role early on but other commitments intervened, giving the part to Affleck. From a box-office point of view, this makes a big difference, but the dramatic results prove more than sound.
Production companies: Pearl Street Films, The Media Farm, K Period Media, The A / Middleton Project, B Story
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michele Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, CJ Wilson, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Anna Baryshnikov, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol
Director-screenwriter: Kenneth Lonergan
Producers: Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, Kevin J. Walsh, Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward
Executive producers: Josh Godfrey, John Krasinski, Declan Baldwin, Bill Migliore
Director of photography: Jody Lee Lipes
Production designer: Ruth De Jong
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Music: Lesley Barber
Casting: Douglas Abiel
Not rated, 137 minutes