The looks in the tired, worn faces of even the youngest members of the Chandler family express more than any dialog Kenneth Lonergan could've crafted for his characters. Manchester by the Sea is so emotionally honest it feels like the film itself might start crying, but at the same time, human suffering, the small moments of life, and the bleak, coastal landscape of overcast skies has scarcely felt so realized.
It revolves around Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a standoffish janitor who has had a difficult life largely because of his abrupt and cold nature. We see him get drunk late in a bar one night, glancing over at two unassuming men who've apparently exchanged one too many glances at his lonesome self, and as a result, Lee waltzes over and cocks them both in the face after a brief interrogation. This is not the man we have to necessarily root for during the better half of this nearly two and a half hour film, but it's the man we got, much like the situation Lee is currently stuck in, as well.
Lee's brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away, and in Joe's will, he grants Lee the sole custody of his fifteen-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Despite not knowing much about his nephew, Lee needs Patrick to provide him with some sort of responsibility so his only solaces of drinking and lackadaisically going about his existence are not the sole activities of his day. Lee once had a bit of structure in his life; when he was married to Randi (Michelle Williams), his two daughters gave him purpose and he was more connected with his friends. But after a mistake on his behalf caused a massive house-fire that killed both of his children and resulted in a divorce from Randi, he's been living day-to-day in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. The only difference now is he has a teenager to taxi back and forth to his band practice and to the homes of his multiple girlfriends.
Manchester by the Sea reminded me a lot of Shawn Christensen's excellent Before I Disappear, the feature adaptation of Christensen's Oscar-winning short film Curfew. Christensen's film showed a man who was ready to kill himself take on one last responsibility of looking after his precocious young niece. In the film, Christensen played a man much like Affleck's Lee, in that you could see the strength and anguish it took for his character to get out of bed let alone muster up the will to slog through another, worthless day.
Affleck's Lee is stuck and he's stuck so bad that his life is just about irreparable. As a result, he has to work to repair microcosms of his life such as attempting to establish some kind of functional relationship with the people around him; even that would be a step in the right direction. He's got a conscious currently overflowing with grief over the loss of his brother, with whom he was fairly close, as the two would go boating quite frequently, that is also filled with guilt over the death of his daughters and his perpetual fate of ruining everything he touches. He's a hard character to sympathize with, due to his aggressive and miserable nature, but he's not a hard character to understand if you consider those points.
It's such a hard role to play, but Affleck nails it, and Lonergan gives him so much ground on which to run with this character that it's easy for him to become a more realized presence throughout this film. Affleck assumes a performance largely of body language, dead-eyes, and evident depression exacerbated by his character's inability to communicate. Late in the film, he has a heart-to-heart with Williams' Randi, a scene comprised entirely of emotion and fragmented sentences, as neither character can stop choking on their words and interrupting one another, and it's one of the most powerful scenes of the entire year.
This is Lonergan's first film since 2012's Margaret, another film heavily centered on grieving and the human experience, and this film is about on that same level. Much like that one, Manchester by the Sea is visually arresting despite maybe its locations and cinematography initially coming off as ordinary. Jody Lee Lipes and Lonergan's emphasis on the coastal atmosphere, where you can almost feel the bitter wind-chill brought on by the waters, the overcast skies, and the gloomy, bleakness of a drab location during the wintertime is communicated in a very crisp, natural manner.
Manchester by the Sea isn't an emotionally uplifting experience, and with that statement, I know I've turned potential moviegoers off. Unfortunately, when a movie like this comes along and asks us to spend over two hours of our precious time thinking, feeling, and observing human behavior, it more-often-than-not - barring awards and recognition - goes ignored by the moviegoing populous. Those who want to maybe exit the theater with something - an idea, a revelation, or simply a feeling - they didn't enter with should seek out this picture, and those who may be afraid of that should too.