The central character in Kenneth Lonergan's probing new drama Manchester by the Sea is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who works as a janitor and handyman for several apartment buildings in Boston, one of which provides him living quarters in a single basement room whose half windows looking out at frozen-ground-level provide an apt visual metaphor for his self-imposed isolation from the world. Lee keeps to himself and lives a life of mundane routine, but there is a clear streak of anger in him that comes out rather comically when one of the tenants berates him one time too many for a leaky pipe and not so comically when he gets drunk and assaults two officious businessmen who look at him wrong across the bar. There is some deeply sullen and lonely about Lee, and Affleck conveys his ingrained ennui with a moving mix of blankness and sudden fury.
Lee is drawn out of exile when he receives word that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died of congestive heart failure, leaving behind his 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), with whom Lee once had a good relationship. Joe's death brings Lee an hour and a half north to the seaport of Manchester, where he and his family had lived until something-which isn't revealed until midway through the film-happened that upended Lee's life and sent him into the self-imposed exile in which he is introduced at the beginning of the film. Having spent so much time stewing in his own anger, remorse, guilt, and other sundry feelings, Lee has a hard time connecting with others, which is why his interactions with Joe's best friend and business partner George (C.J. Wilson), Joe's estranged ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), and Patrick are so awkward. It is as if he is not really sure how to speak "human" anymore, especially under such stressful conditions, an issue that gets worse when Lee is informed by his brother's lawyer that, without consulting Lee, Joe named him Patrick's guardian with the idea that he would move back to Manchester to oversee him and his trust until he turns 21. Lee is immediately resistant to the idea-being in Manchester is clearly painful for him-and he struggles with how to reconcile his brother's wishes with his own limitations.
Lonergan, a playwright-turned-filmmaker who previously wrote and directed the difficult sibling drama You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2006), which ran into numerous legal issues and was shelved for years before being heavily recut, is drawn to sharply etched dramas about family turmoil, and in Manchester by the Sea he packs the story with just about every problem and tragedy imaginable. He structures the narrative around a series of extensive flashbacks, which allows us to slowly understand the life that Lee was living in Manchester before the big tragedy that drove him away. Lonergan has a nice touch with dialogue, and he stages important scenes in ways that allow the drama to play out against naturalistic backdrops to which we can relate (one major argument between Lee and Patrick unfolds while Lee tries to remember where he parked the car, a mundane problem that nevertheless exacerbates the tensions). There is also a scene near the end when Lee runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) on the street that develops into an intensely moving outpouring of shared grief and regret. It's the kind of scene that, in a more conventional drama, would be the big turning point that leads to the protagonist's unambiguous redemption, but Lonergan isn't interested in such obvious, easy outlets. The film ends on a note of grace and hope, but it's hard-won and hardly unequivocal.
At the same time, though, Lonergan packs in a few too many subplots and issues, which makes the already long running time seem overly indulgent. The film's set-up is much too lengthy, for example. Granted, Lonergan is establishing Lee's interpersonal isolation and life of routine, but he keeps on reinforcing it in a way that ultimately diminishes the impact. We just want the story to get going. Some of the film's dramatic offshoots feel weirdly misplaced, as well, especially Patrick's sexual prodigiousness, which finds him bedding two different girlfriends, neither of whom knows about the other. How that adds to his character is unclear, although it does provide for a few attempts at comic relief when Patrick is trying to go all the way with one girlfriend while the girl's mother, who seems to know exactly what is going on but looks the other way, interrupts at all the wrong times. Some of this leads to much needed moments of humor-levity in an otherwise grim story of loss-but it also makes the film feel unbalanced in ways that aren't productive. Granted, its virtues far outweigh its problems, but Manchester by the Sea still feels like a film that isn't quite there.
Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Amazon Studios
Overall Rating: (3)
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