The film Manchester by the Sea is the achingly human story of Lee Chandler, an ordinary individual from a working-class family who leads a quotidian existence in a small New England fishing town.
But a careless lapse on his part leads to a horrific event, leaving him haunted and struggling to cope in its aftermath.
The film is now in theaters as a limited release but will soon be streaming on Amazon, which is one of the movie’s key backers.
Casey Affleck brilliantly stars as Lee in a minimalist, emotionally locked-down performance that smolders beneath the surface.
In the wake of the catastrophe, Lee flees to nearby Boston where he leads a solitary bare-bones existence. He works as a lowly janitor and lives in a below-the-sidewalk apartment, a metaphorical coffin.
He ventures out occasionally to get drunk in a local bar, sometimes starting a fist-fight when his bottled-up emotions overflow.
His life is again transformed when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a sudden heart attack.
Lee is shocked to learn that Joe in his will has designated him to serve as the sole guardian of Joe’s son and Lee’s nephew Patrick, a rambunctious 16-year-old, bursting with testosterone. Newcomer Lucas Hedges gives a breakout performance as Patrick.
Lee returns to his hometown to carry out his new obligation. Landing back in the community he left behind, he’s forced to confront past demons and haltingly re-establish family connections, not always with great success.
In one searing scene, Lee runs into his embittered former wife Randi, bitingly acted by Michelle Williams, who pours out her hurt with venom.
The film is directed by Kenneth Lonergan who also did the script and is also a playwright. For his coterie of devoted fans, Lonergan in Manchester by the Sea makes a long-awaited return to moviemaking.
His first film as a director-screenwriter was You Can Count on Me, released way back in 2000. He received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and got numerous other awards and accolades.
Another of his highly-regarded films, Margaret, went through five years of post-production hell before it finally got released in 2011.
The mangled version was followed by a fully restored director’s cut in 2013 which garnered several best picture awards in Europe and has become a cult favorite of cineasts.
In Manchester by the Sea, the narrative moves back and forth in time. Lonergan assembles a rough mosaic where the pieces eventually fall into place. The cataclysm that winds up haunting Lee doesn’t take place until half way through the movie.
The film starts in happier past times. Lee is out fishing with his brother Joe and a much younger Patrick, as they josh around and joke about sharks swirling underneath the boat.
The luminous cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes captures the sparkling waters off the rugged coastline of Massachusetts’ Cape Ann, conveying what was once a more carefree life.
And even though a smothering bleakness hangs over much of the film, there are also comic interludes that offset the gloom, along with some warm moments. Many of them involve Patrick.
There’s a long delay before Joe’s body can be buried because the ground is frozen solid, keeping him on ice in his coffin in the mortuary when Patrick is forced to pay an uncomfortable visit.
Later there’s a tragic-comic scene when Patrick struggles to pull a frozen chicken out of the freezer and breaks down in tears connecting it to his late father’s delayed burial.
There’s also a touching scene near the finish of the film when Lee and Patrick resolve their prickly push-pull relationship and finally bond.
But in the end Lee feels he can’t continue to stay in his hometown, and leaves again for Boston where he will resume his job as a janitor. Manchester by the Sea does not finish with a bang but with this sad whimper.
That’s as Lonergan would have it. He deliberately withholds a healing finale for Lee. While Lonergan does not condescend to pity his protagonist, he refuses to offer some final judgment or provide a transcendent moment that would give meaning to his life.
And there’s no catharsis or conventional resolution for the audience. If there’s a message it’s that life is messy and there’s no guarantee of a happy ending.
What the film positively offers are superb performances by Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams who all dig deep into their characters to convey their flawed humanity.
All three are also likely to be top contenders for Oscars when next year’s actor nominations are announced.