The Cutaway is my favorite cinematic device. To me there is something incredibly pure and human about a good cutaway in that it simulates our multi-dimensional experience of time. Physically you are always in the present, but your present is constantly interrupted by memory; associative snatches of past events spring up to remind you of important moments, be they happy, devastating, or somewhere in between. The drama of Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea is predicated upon the unavoidable presence of memory in one’s life, and though the cutaways might stretch long enough to be considered flashbacks, in an associative way they seamlessly fit the through-line of the film as it explores the deep emotional trauma of Lee, a janitor and divorcee faced with the threat of human connection.
Lee leads a quiet, isolated life at the onset of the film. He’s a handyman that fixes mundane problems for the unappreciative tenants of a building in Quincy, Massachusetts. Each day is much like the last, ending with him sipping a beer at the bar, alone. He repels connection and invites antagonism and much of the film is concerned with why this is. Lee’s voluntary isolative state ends when he receives word that his brother, Joe, has passed away suddenly. Joe’s untimely death forces Lee to return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, where he must face not only his tragic past, but also an uncertain future embodied by Patrick, Joe’s teenage son, who is now in need of a guardian.
The strength of the drama in Manchester by the Sea comes from its believability. At times it seems more like a documentary than a drama because every relationship is nuanced and layered with (often unspoken) history. There’s an aged quality to the characters here that not every film achieves. For example, Lee and his ex-wife, Randi share only a handful of scenes, but their dialogue bleeds with such regret and earnestness that it’s impossible to look away. Lee’s relationship with Patrick, suddenly changed from friendly to paternal, is similarly complex; each interaction is colored by their relationship to Joe as well as the other characters in the film, such as Randi or Patrick’s absent, alcoholic mother. As the film proceeds, Lee’s past tragedy and subsequent withdrawal from society call into question his suitability to be Patrick’s guardian, however Lee himself does not desire that responsibility, putting further strain on their already tenuous relationship. All of this is dramatic material at its finest, but it is grounded and believable. It sounds like a story you could have heard around town.
This is due in large part to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterfully conversational script and understated, yet beautiful direction. In every scene he makes the performances the focus and with good reason: they’re all incredible. Casey Affleck turns in the best performance of his career (and that’s saying a lot considering his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). He effortlessly embodies Lee’s quiet pain, long-nursed with alcohol and self-hatred. Yet his solitary, self-destructive nature never reaches hyperbolic Hollywood heights. Instead, Lee is a man in a constant struggle with the specter of his past. Joe’s death reminds him of that struggle, except this time instead of retreating from the world, he’s forced to confront it for the sake of Patrick. Affleck conveys all of this complexity – Lee’s fear, his regret, his striving to be better – in a performance that somehow manages to be restrained and devastating at the same time.
Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom) is similarly impressive as Patrick, who must attempt to navigate the drama of being a teenager on top of his father’s sudden death. Hedges does great work, deftly shifting between forced ambivalence and full-on panic. One gets the sense that he’s trying to adapt to the new status-quo of his life by ignoring what’s happened, but like Lee, there’s a price to that emotional distance. How Patrick’s pain compares and contrasts with Lee’s is a fascinating point of discussion and sure to be a question on some film class homework assignment in the future.
As far as the supporting players, Michelle Williams is predictably excellent, making the best of her brief time as Randi, a woman who’s lost more than most but still manages to keep going. Williams is a master of peeling back emotional layers (see Blue Valentine) and here she is no different. She is shown only through the lens of how she treats Lee before and after their tragic past event, but in those scenes she reveals much about the intensely human arc of her character. To describe her further would spoil the film, but let it be known Williams navigates these heady dramatic waters with grace and dutifully delivers in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film.
Kyle Chandler (ever reliable Kyle Chandler, known to many as Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights) plays Lee’s older brother, Joe. Present only in flashbacks, Chandler embodies everyman charm and reliability. His Joe is not a particularly talented or special man, but he is hardworking and loves his family. His uncomplicated normality is something that Lee yearns for, but thinks he cannot achieve given his past failures and interestingly, Joe’s treatment of Lee after his trauma is similar to Lee’s subsequent relationship with Patrick. The warmth and empathy that Chandler imbues within Joe makes the hole left in Lee and Patrick’s life by his passing that much more tangible.
If all of this sounds very dour, it is. Manchester by the Sea is not a happy film, but it isn’t relentlessly bleak either. There is humor here, derived from everyday banter and cutting insults strengthened by the casts’ Massachusetts accents. However, these moments of levity do not detract from the central message of the film which, surprisingly, is not whether Lee is capable of being Patrick’s guardian. Instead the film chooses to present an unflinching and dramatically brave view on grief. Sometimes grief truly is insurmountable; it can be fought and one can win daily triumphs over it, but it never goes away completely. This in itself is not a satisfying message to have in comparison to most mainstream films, but it is the truest. If artists use lies to tell the truth, then Manchester by the Sea is one of the most truthful films I have ever seen; one that is moving, raw, and cannot be missed.