To see Casey Affleck’s face in the opening moments of Manchester by the Sea, a moving exploration of grief by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, is to be reminded of Roger Ebert’s description of cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.”
Lee (Affleck) doesn’t say much in these first few scenes, which find him doing custodial work in Boston-area apartments by day and numbing himself in dive bars by night. Nor does he need to. The pain etched on his face does all the talking for him, even if we don’t yet know the full extent of it.
In one of those watering holes he ignores the flirtations of a pretty girl to focus his attention on two yuppies with whom he’s determined to pick a fight — though he knows he won’t win. Lee’s every movement is marked by barely contained rage, like a wounded, coiled snake waiting to strike before any further harm can be done to him.
And then he receives a phone call, the kind all of us dread getting, but the news doesn’t seem to come as a surprise. Lee’s brother (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler) has succumbed to the heart condition he was diagnosed with a number of years earlier, which means that arrangements have to be made and the deceased’s 16-year-old son is in need of a guardian.
You can see where this is going, and though Manchester by the Sea is almost certainly the best “unexpected kid” movie ever made, it’s so diffuse in its approach to the genre that it barely belongs to it. (The same can be said of Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, a biopic about the former First Lady set in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination. It’s really a portrait of grief — and one that Natalie Portman, her face tear-streaked and despondent, sits for beautifully.)
Manchester marks Lonergan’s first feature since Margaret, a compromised version of which was dumped into theaters five years ago after a protracted legal battle between filmmaker and studio. That movie had passionate defenders, whose #TeamMargaret campaign eventually led to a wider release. Thankfully, Manchester by the Sea hasn’t been forced to weather a similar storm — it arrives with the wind at its back and looks poised to keep riding the momentum for the foreseeable future.
It’s also bitterly funny, with every dark moment — and there are oh so many — matched by gallows humor. Much of this comes from newcomer Lucas Hedges, who plays the bereaved son: “Where are we going, the orphanage?” he asks as his troubled uncle ferries him from one meeting to the next. The conflict in Manchester by the Sea isn’t just whether Lee will rise to the parental occasion but where he and his new charge might end up: Neither wants to upend his life and move.
Michelle Williams is there too, playing the ex-wife still living in Manchester years after Lee moved on, and like Affleck’s her performance is a masterclass in understatement. Their interplay leads to the film’s emotional climax, a brief conversation between two former lovers torn apart by grief. The scene is so wrenching you may want to follow our hero’s lead and simply shut down. There’s beauty in the sorrow, though. What doesn’t kill you might not make you stronger, but it will at least remind you that you’re still alive.
Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Opens Friday, Edina Cinema