'Manchester by the Sea': A Film of Trauma Without Redemption

Here is a film that is free of formulas and rife with true, reliable emotional openness. One of the year’s best pictures, not least thanks to a remarkable performance by Casey Affleck.

This image released by Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios shows Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck in a scene from 'Manchester By The Sea.'
Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios via AP

American cinema is usually out to teach us that traumas can be healed, that they even sometimes steel us. Not so “Manchester by the Sea,” the third feature by the American screenwriter and director Kenneth Lonergan, who is also a highly regarded playwright.

Lonergan’s first movie, the very fine “You Can Count on Me,” starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, released in 2000, was nominated for an Oscar in the original screenplay category. However, in 2005 he himself underwent a trauma from which he has yet to recover, according to interviews he’s given recently. Following his second film, “Margaret,” he found himself entangled in legal disputes with Fox Searchlight Pictures. The picture wasn’t released until 2011, and then in an abridged version of 150 minutes. (A year later, this remarkable movie came out in a 186-minute version on DVD.) Now comes “Manchester by the Sea,” whose 137 minutes flew by without a single one of them feeling superfluous. In light of the huge acclaim the movie has received, there’s a good chance that this excellent filmmaker will finally get the broad recognition he deserves.

Family melodrama underlies Lonergan’s new picture, as it did his first, which was about the connection between a single mother and her drifter brother, who can’t find a handle in the reality he inhabits. In “Manchester” it’s the connection between brothers and between one of the brothers and his nephew. Trauma, whether it occurred in the distant past or close to the present, impels the drama, and is accompanied by the constant possibility of abandonment. This, whether it occurs in full or in part, signifies an inability to cope with the trauma.

The protagonist is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who works as a janitor in a few Boston apartment buildings. He unblocks clogged toilets, shovels snow and the like, with an almost mechanical diligence, unless he gets into a dispute with one of the tenants. Lee seems to be an introverted, restrained person, wrapped in some kind of disconnect from reality. But he has another side as well. Having a beer in a bar in the evening, he gets into a fistfight with someone at the drop of a hat, even though the slight he thinks he suffered was not deliberate. There’s something pent up in him, which he has to release.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a male character in a movie who is so complex, gentle, captivating and touching, but at the same time concealed. Lonergan, as fine a screenwriter as he is a director, does not play up the contradictions of the character tendentiously in a way that’s convenient for him. Lee is a character whom we get to know as the movie unfolds, from the outside in, and that’s also how he’s portrayed by Casey Affleck. I’ve long admired his acting skill, but here he gives one of the great male performances in recent years.

Initially, we learn little about Lee apart from his work, his occasional eruptive violence, and the fact that he’s divorced. Lee has a brother named Joe (Kyle Chandler) whose alcoholic wife abandoned him and their son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is now 16. Joe, who lives in Manchester, a small town on the sea, not far from Boston, has a short life expectancy due to a heart ailment. Not long into the movie, Lee is informed that his brother has been hospitalized again because of his heart. He rushes to Manchester, but is too late: his brother has died. (Is it only by chance that Lonergan gives the protagonist the surname of the actor who plays the part of the character whose death is the springboard for the plot? I think not.)

Mosaic of the past

One of the most moving elements in the film is the stoicism with which Lee, Patrick and the others accept Joe’s death, because it was on the cards. Patrick, for example, the deceased’s son, continues to play in his band and to maneuver between the two girls he’s dating. We see Joe in flashbacks that create a mosaic of the past within the present – a mosaic that is crucial to the themes the picture explores.

Joe’s death necessitates arrangements, and Lee handles them with the same apparent disconnect that characterizes his janitorial work. For example, he accepts as an unalterable given the fact that the ground in Manchester is frozen solid, so much so that Joe cannot be buried until it thaws (though he will have a requiem service). His body will be kept in a freezer in the meantime. However, this situation upsets Patrick more than anything else, and above all represents his mourning for his father, which is otherwise barely expressed.

But a surprise awaits Lee – one that rattles Patrick even more. In his will, Joe named Lee as his son’s legal guardian until Patrick turns 21. Lee is psychologically incapable of fulfilling this mission, on top of which Patrick does not want to leave Manchester and move to Boston, where Lee lives and works. Lee, for his part, isn’t willing to move to Manchester, even though there is a bond of mature affection, without an iota of cloying sentimentality, between uncle and nephew. Another possibility is that 

Lee will live with his mother (Gretchen Mol), who is no longer drinking and has remarried, this time to a religiously observant man (Matthew Broderick). But one visit to their home is enough to eliminate that option.

The trauma that is at the core of Lee’s life and behavior, and led to his divorce, is revealed in due course. Lee has not been able to get over it, and perhaps never will be able to – hence his refusal to act as Patrick’s guardian and alternative father. Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife, also lives in the area, and if there is a high point in the movie, it’s a chance meeting on the street between Lee and Randi, who is pushing a stroller with a child from her second marriage. 

If the film as a whole, with its dramatic and emotional precision, attests to Lonergan’s talent as a scriptwriter and director, this scene displays that talent in its most distilled form. In it, Affleck’s performance rises to a summit – watch the looks he gives, his body language, the way he reacts to Randi’s words – and Michelle Williams, despite her small role, once again proves that she is an excellent actress. This is also the place to compliment Lucas Hedges: his portrayal of an adolescent whose mother has abandoned him and whose father has died, displays skill and impressive maturity.

“Manchester by the Sea” is not about the easy redemption that American filmmakers cotton to. This is not one of those pictures that show how a relationship that is forced on a man with problems changes him and opens him to new existential and emotional possibilities. Lonergan’s film is free of those formulas. What it does have is emotional openness, which is more correct and far more credible than all those supposed verities to which so many American films love to show obeisance. 

Even if abandonment is a theme of the movie, “Manchester by the Sea” does not for a minute abandon its human element, and that humanness includes awareness, acceptance and an opening – but to what? In a picture where the power of fate plays such a meaningful role, there’s no way to know. But don’t let that humanness, as it’s manifested in this film, elude you.