Brutally unflinching character portraits are Kenneth Lonergan’s forte and the deeply flawed, emotionally empty character at the heart of Lonergan’s latest provides a stirring spin on the very concept of such a portrait. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, brilliant) doesn’t have anything to learn about himself, but we have plenty of things to learn about him. He’s introduced as a cantankerous custodian unable or unwilling (or both) to connect with other people on even a basic level of communication.
Lee gets a phone call he’s been dreading and then he has to make the drive from Boston to seaside Manchester to deal with a family tragedy and awkwardly reconnect with the nephew (newcomer Lucas Hedges) he once bonded with and now barely knows. At first, Lee’s story appears to be an observation of how a curmudgeonly hermit deals with newly foisted responsibility and it is about that to a degree, but Lonergan has no intentions of hiding Lee’s secrets.
Slowly, carefully, methodically, the writer/director pulls back the curtains on his protagonist’s past, using flashbacks to reveal key information about what brought Lee to this point and why he’s so emotionally distant, so vacant of love. Initially, the decision to approach this slice-of-life drama as a sort of character-centric mystery wherein the ‘why’ is treated with the utmost importance seems to run against the narrative grain.
Not knowing why Lee is so prickly adds to the intrigue and it’s an element of his character that Affleck is able to make greatly engaging because his interactions with other people have a startling and unpredictable quality to them. So when Lonergan pushes forward with the tell-all reveal, my immediate response was to push back. Why do we need to know why Lee is a jerk when the movie is about observing how he’s going to handle the current situation with his nephew?
Then it becomes clear. The movie isn’t just about how Lee is dealing with the present, but also how ruined he is by the past. The backstory feeds the conflict with his nephew because both past and present narrative strands are tethered to a parenting theme, except it’s more than that. Lee cannot escape his past and so he carries it around with him everywhere and always, meaning the movie itself can’t shake it, either.
This reveal, that the flashbacks aren’t overexplaining filler, but vitally informative character data fueling the movie’s dramatic engine, expands the story’s emotional reach, bringing both Lee and Lonergan’s motivation into focus at the same time. From here on out, we know what’s at stake and how Lonergan moves forward from the reveal point is perhaps the most masterful aspect of the whole movie.
Affleck and Hedges lend Lonergan’s efforts immense worth by making Lee and his nephew Patty such richly believable characters. They stumble through their interactions together without a false step. Their ability to make every scene feel spontaneous is absolutely key to breathing life into Lonergan’s script. The dialogue is robust and relatable, but it doesn’t crackle loudly, so the actors are challenged to get deep into their roles to give meaning to lines that would otherwise lose their potency.
That can be true of any actor reading lines from a script, but Lonergan codes his dialogue with such lived-in wit and weight and takes his characters to such revelatory precipices that the possibility of greatness is within reach for the actor and the failure to push that far can leave a disastrous hole symbolizing the lost potential. Thankfully, the cast delivers with Affleck elevating Lee’s arc to haunting heights.
This is most appreciated because Lonergan is wrestling with overwhelmingly heavy themes here. Just as the filmmaker gives Affleck the space to stage an acting showcase, so does the actor give Lonergan the most moving version of his tragic tale.
The power of Manchester by the Sea lurks all around the edges of its story, finally sneaking up to take a chilling chomp out of our heart with Lonergan’s devastating assessment that some people are beyond saving. Some tragedies cannot be overcome and some sins cannot be atoned for. Lonergan is hardly the first cinematic artist to send a downer of a message, to rob his protagonist and audience of a happy ending, but rare is the movie that so darkly and melancholically shuts the door on its primary character’s path to redemption.
Cinema longs to look for hope, even if only just a glimmer, but Lee is afforded no such flicker for the future. It’s a terribly dark conclusion that makes Manchester’s calm and slow fade-to-black finish become a visual metaphor for the movie’s emotional resonance. It seeps in, leaving us to ponder the fragility of an existence that sometimes deals in harrowing absolutes.