Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Opens November 18
Sullen or kid-like or both, Casey Affleck has rarely seemed like a robust figure to build a movie around, more often puppyishly indicating a person who’s not filling out his shoes rather than fitting the bill. But filmmaker-playwright Kenneth Lonergan, in only three strange films, has been attracted to actors able to thrive in an awkward phase, whether it’s Mark Ruffalo and his permanently protesting drawl as the younger-brother fuck-up in You Can Count on Me, or Oscar-winner-at-age-9 Anna Paquin as a precocious teenager taking on the world and herself in Margaret. In Manchester by the Sea, Affleck embodies emotional stasis, stolid far beyond the usual psychological cloud-cover of your average New England grief picture.
Affleck plays Lee, a Massachusetts maintenance man called back to his hometown after his brother’s heart failure to look after the man’s teenaged son. Surly with the tenants in his building, he’s shown through flashbacks midway through the film to be haunted—you might say scared or shamed stiff—by the deaths of his children in a fire he inadvertently caused. Shuffling through life, as if forever stupefied by regret, Affleck’s Lee isn’t some cinematic walking wound who’ll be set free by the right woman, he’s a shell of his former self, which maybe wasn’t so full-grown in the first place. What little we learn of his marriage to his wife (Michelle Williams) suggests a randy man of the house still reconciling hanging out with the guys, with the finer responsibilities of parenting. Thereafter, Lee is a man seemingly waiting to collapse or snap, putting on a hard face, but hollowed out from within by sadness.
Affleck has frequently struggled with the strained appearance of playing it serious in dramatic roles, but his occasional thick-voiced opaqueness translates well to this traumatized character, stricken down by his own tragic error one fateful night. As Lee’s teenage nephew and would-be adoptive son, Patrick, Lucas Hedges gives us adolescent oblivion, all hormones and unresolved aggression, crammed amidst the contradictions of youthful naïveté and unfiltered resentments. Shaping all this, Lonergan’s off-kilter editorial rhythms measure out chunky scenes and moments that verge on the misshapen but that body forth a suitably minor-key languor.
It’s possible to speculate that Lonergan can draw on his own, artistic trauma for the mood of Manchester by the Sea. Beset by delays and obstructions and then reborn in a director’s cut, Margaret may well have become a cause célèbre. But a years-long limbo can take its toll. Yet Lonergan’s latest, finely-tuned work shows an unbowed director plunging into the depths of grief, content to sink down, with an aggrieved character who could just as well take his own life in order to shake off his burden.