One of the hallmarks of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is its montages of the Manhattan skyline. Lonergan repeatedly scanned the high-rises of the Upper West Side to wallpaper over that film’s unfinished scenes and, more importantly, to suggest the impossible density of narratives swirling around his young protagonist. In Manchester by the Sea, the writer-director uses similar montages to different ends, capturing a hamlet that is, for all intents and purposes, frozen in time. Manchester-by-the-Sea will look immediately familiar to anyone who’s spent time on the more rugged crags of New England’s coastline. The town, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, wraps around a bay populated by soft, rippling waves and anchored trawlers. As photographed by Jody Lee Lipes, the local post office and nearly every other municipal building are white and weather-beaten, like the mounds of snow that grow and harden and brown with dirt over an endless winter.
Quaint and picturesque, Manchester looks like a prison to Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman based in the Boston suburb of Quincy. Lee’s profession suits his transient nature; his days are a series of fleeting transactions, repairing people’s leaks and clogged toilets, before nights spent drinking alone in bars or watching sports in a drab basement apartment. He’s evidently withdrawn and disengaged, keen to avoid niceties and companionship. Lee is called to return to Manchester after his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies of a heart attack, the end result of years of congestive heart failure. From bureaucratic dealings to uncomfortable reunions with old friends and family, Joe’s death forces Lee to reintegrate into a society he’s turned away from after an unspeakable tragedy. Lee struggles to navigate through these rituals, but his grasp on his grief is truly shaken by the news that he’s been deemed the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son, the popular and athletic ladies’ man Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Lonergan is keen to frustrate the therapeutic trajectory of Manchester by the Sea’s premise. Lee and Patrick are united in tactics of avoidance: Lee trots Patrick along to appointments with lawyers, mechanics, and funeral directors, deflecting long-term decisions—about guardianship and estate plans—in favor of dealing with immediate, bureaucratic concerns. Patrick, meanwhile, has Lee chauffeur him to band practices and between dates with his multiple girlfriends. Lonergan fleshes out the history of their family through a series of slipstream flashbacks. Some consecrate the bond between Lee, Joe, and a young Patrick (Ben O’Brien), while others slowly illuminate earlier devastations, like the alcoholism of Patrick’s mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), and the wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and family who’ve disappeared from Lee’s life. These memories, all tender and some utterly wrenching, steadily accumulate as the Manchester winter slowly thaws into spring.
A lifelong dramaturge, Lonergan has a fondness for convenient metaphors and an ear for dialogue that edges gently past naturalism. This impulse suited Margaret’s stubborn, hyperbolic Upper West Siders, but it’s a riskier gambit amid the working-class, hardscrabble characters in this film. Early on, Lee consults a tenant about the leak in her faucet. She could purchase a stopper to mitigate the leak, he suggests, “or you might want to consider replacing the whole apparatus.” This elevated language simultaneously delights the ear and flirts with excessive theatrical tidiness—a feeling bolstered by a slightly oppressive soundtrack and one too many bar fights. But it always casts an eye on complex, intractable truths: Grief can be mitigated, medicated or avoided, but you can’t rebuild a broken man wholesale.
The film gradually comes to its sense of exquisitely calibrated, hardened intimacy. Every flashback and uncomfortable reunion draws out another vagary of the mourning process, and Manchester by the Sea comes to incorporate a full community of souls, and their attempts to communicate their wounds and regrets to one another. Some reach out, others withdraw, and the rest aren’t sure what to do but crack jokes and conjure better times. And this comprehensive emotional sweep is achieved with minimal exposition: Lee is revealed to be somewhat of a local pariah without any catty scenes of small-town gossip, and details about the dissolution of his marriage are withheld simply because they’re abundantly clear on the alternately desolate and anguished faces of Affleck and Williams. Lee and Randi’s exchanges, a symphony of agonizingly incomplete thoughts and gestures, serve as the film’s emotional sledgehammer.
Manchester by the Sea’s heart, though, rests in the relationship between Lee, the would-be guardian who can’t escape his self-abnegating sadness, and Patrick, the orphaned son who doesn’t know how to accept that his perfectly normal life has taken an abrupt turn. Their testy interactions result in some of Lonergan’s most full-hearted comedy—indelible bickering about teen sex, and a conversation where both characters refer to a garage door opener as a “bleeper” that any New Englander will cherish—and his most despairing sentiments. Manchester by the Sea insists on the intractability of grief even as it implicitly argues that we have a social responsibility to take care of one another. Dead and distant family members, the film’s omnipresent structuring absences, only exacerbate these burdens. As such, Affleck, Hedges, and every member of Lonergan’s impeccable cast comes off as a human being in pain just doing their best, in the full awareness that it won’t be enough to heal, appease, or fix the only people they have left to love.