Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
Kenneth Lonergan's magnificent third film, Manchester by the Sea, is dominated by what is absent as much as what is present.
For the audience, the extraordinary first hour is defined by the absence of information - more particularly the key revelation that recontextualises everything that comes before and after it. The characters in the film, meanwhile, are plagued by the absence of others - a father, a mother, a brother, a wife, a child. And ultimately it’s the absence of easy resolutions and happy endings that so emotionally devastating and dramatically bountiful.
The use of flashbacks, in less careful hands, can be a narrative crutch. At worst, it’s a haphazard way of filling in gaps that never needed to be filled in in the first place. Manchester by the Sea, though, uses the tool to extraordinary effect. When we first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) it’s abundantly clear something is amiss. Miserable and temperamental in the film’s ‘present’, his mood stands in stark relief to the happier, sociable figure we’re introduced to in scattered reminiscences. Where exactly is Lee’s wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their children? Even the establishing shots of Lee’s hometown - the picturesque Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts - feel uneasy, the peaceful scenery disrupted by off-kilter angles and edits.
What Lonergan manages is to artfully but slowly fill the audience's’ knowledge gap between ‘now and then’ before masterfully revealing the trauma. It is a relatively simple dramatic trick, but it’s pulled off so elegantly here that when the reveal comes it flawlessly delivers the emotional knockout it absolutely must do. When the key flashback eventually plays out, it plays out in evocative detail - tiny little gestures (the awkward handling of a grocery bag stands out) communicate as much as the major revelations.
But even before that character (and film) defining trauma is revealed, it’s another tragedy that pulls Lee back to Manchester. It’s clear that the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is a shock, but it’s doubly so when Lee becomes the de-facto guardian of Lee’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Forced to at least temporarily resettle in Manchester, it’s a place that is familiar yet also alien for Lee - almost as if this lovely New England town is, for one man at least, haunted.
While the exact details are best left for the film itself to reveal, it’s no major spoiler to say this is a film about grief and mourning. With Lee, it’s an incomprehensible loss that’s also tinged with guilt, and the death of his brother is another suckerpunch when he’s already down and out. For Patrick, it’s much more raw - his attempts to carry on with life cruelly disrupted by the regular realisations that his father really is gone. The drama that occurs when these two emotionally volatile characters collide is the sort of grand yet intimate family drama one almost suspected American films didn’t really have to offer before - indeed, Manchester itself, despite obvious signs of modernity, feels like a place stuck out of time.
And yet, despite the inescapable role of tragedy, Manchester by the Sea is also a very funny and warm-hearted film. Patrick’s shambolic love life is a comedic well Lonergan regularly dips into, with Lee’s bemusement at his nephew’s multiple relationships proving both a source for bonding and conflict. It’s a tricky tonal balance, but it’s perfectly judged. Indeed, the film on-the-whole feels like a much more coherent, consistent film than its predecessor Margaret. That film - which, in its theatrical version anyway, often felt like it was held together by good intentions, ambition and a smattering of pure luck - actually benefited from its unwieldy, novelistic approach. But there’s no doubt Manchester by the Sea has had its sharp edges smoothed down, and that’s necessary for the story being told. It cements Lonergan’s place as a shining light of American screenwriting and filmmaking.
For all the moments that earn genuine laughs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this isn’t the sort of film with easy, crowdpleasing resolutions. As the film segues into its final act, a jolly montage disregards Lesley Barber's somber original compositions and classical cuts that dominate the soundtrack. Lonergan and Jennifer Lame instead temporarily edit the images to the lively, optimistic I'm Beginning To See The Light. As tradition dictates, it appears Lee is finally overcoming his internal anguish and moving on with things, the freezing Massachusetts winter transition to an altogether more welcoming spring.
But then a chance encounter with Randi - Williams, it must be said, does wonders with less than a dozen scenes - serves as a heartbreaking reminder that no, it’s actually not that easy. Ella Fitzgerald’s final “I’m beginning to see the light” is very explicitly emphasised as a sort of cruel punchline, a potent counterpoint to the heartbreaking encounter the viewers and characters know is going to follow when the song fades out. While most plot details are wrapped up by film’s end, the characters cannot move on so tidily. Manchester by the Sea is one of cinema’s most beautiful, emotionally turbulent explorations of the messiness of grief, and how it can't be overcome in 140 minutes.