Manchester by the Sea is a masterpiece of incurable grief

Summary: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor/maintenance man living in Boston in a haze of work and drinking. A call about the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) brings him back home to Manchester, where he grew up. Charged with taking guardianship of Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee is putting the pieces of his life back together from the tragedies of the town that still haunts him.

The first time I cried couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes in. Lee Chandler  arrives to the hospital where his brother Joe has just died. He passed during Lee’s drive to the hospital. The news seems to hang in the air, suffocating in silence. No one bursts into tears, at least not for a little while. Everything is just quiet, a few questions asked in a stupor, doctors trying their best to read the room and keep things composed. It’s not performative, it’s not dramatic. It’s stifling, it’s trying your best to keep it together and figure out what comes next.

Longergan’s triumphant return to cinema is couched in what could have been cliche. Let’s face it, we’ve been here before. Sundance is the world’s leading exporter of “Movies Where A Sad White Guy Who Doesn’t Have His Stuff Together Goes Back To His Small Hometown And Is Given A Charge He Doesn’t Want While He Reunites With His Ex.” It’s their bread and butter.

But engaging with the movie on that level is a pithy way to refuse engaging with the staggering power of what Lonergan has crafted here, as pithy and stupid as I am for making that joke because I’m still having trouble fully coming to terms with my own emotional reaction to this film.

Because Manchester is about very specific masculine ways of dealing with grief, of letting it soak into the bone and infect your life, never expressing openly. Of trying to move through life as you deal with it. It’s got that working class New England flavor for sure, the rawer and ruder expressions therein. But as a lifelong Southerner, I still see it and I still hear countless men who try their best to keep pushing through because they don’t express grief.

In this movie, Lonergan is asking what happens when grief becomes terminal, when it so overtakes your life that you can do nothing else but try to overcome it. And more importantly, that life isn’t necessarily going to let you do that.

The world of Manchester by the Sea acknowledges that even when your world stops, the rest of it goes on. As much of a tearjerker as I’ve described, the film is often hilarious, a series of witty put-downs and awkward comedic beats. Life doesn’t stop, the joy comes even in the tragedy.

Much of that is thanks to the two towering performances at the film’s core. Much ink has been spilled on Casey Affleck in this film (and in general, as of late), so I will spare you all from more. Let it simply be said that no matter what, this is the kind of performance that some actors can only dream of, perfect in its control and subtlety, the kind of performance where an actor lives in a character and lets you live with him. It’s about what he’s willing to express, and that’s extraordinary.

I want to talk a little more about Lucas Hedges, the bigger surprise of this film. In many ways, Patrick is what Lee isn’t, confident and expressive with his shit actually together, though he is to some degree parallel. Hedges gives an incredibly nuanced and real performance, announcing himself as a remarkable young actor capable of generating a lot of empathy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about an old Roger Ebert quote as of late.  He said that movies are a machine that generates empathy. That’s Manchester by the Sea. There’s a towering scene of writing and acting later in the film that is so much about that. A scene between Williams (who’s limited time in this film is completely made up for in that single scene, I almost wish that had been her only one) and Affleck is so much about that idea. About helping you to understand how much hurt and grief can linger and last with you. Expression vs. non-expression, hard to ever truly understand.

It’s also in the little ways Lonergan puts his world together. The sound of this world, grating and scraping, the little noises of day to day activities become just a little louder a little more grating. It’s a particular brilliance of sound design, helping you understand how it feels for the entire world to feel set against you, to feel like it’s no longer your own.

Manchester by the Sea is a film deeply felt, and one that demands that you feel it just as deep. Dripping with bone-deep grief and effusive and hilarious humanity, Manchester by the Sea is a special sort of brilliant and Lonergan has tapped into something real for its creation. This is a movie that heals, that helps you understand how to piece it all back together.