Though it’s only two hours and 17 minutes long, Manchester by the Sea, the third film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) leaves you with the feeling you’ve just lived a whole separate lifetime and are re-entering, dazed, into your own. This curious temporal effect has nothing to do with the movie’s duration or pacing. Rather, it’s that Lonergan’s ability to build a believable and morally complex fictional world from the ground up, paying attention to the tiniest details of character, dialogue, and setting, makes Manchester by the Sea seem to contain all of life within it, like a ship in a bottle—an apt image for a film that takes place almost entirely in a New England fishing village whose salty air the viewer can almost smell.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), as we first meet him, is a janitor and handyman in a suburban Boston apartment building. He leads an austere existence, seemingly impervious both to the come-ons of attractive female tenants and to the wrath of the building’s owner, who doesn’t appreciate it when Lee answers the rudeness of one renter with a coolly profanity-laced reply. But when he learns that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died of a congenital heart condition, Lee abruptly leaves behind his life in Boston and drives to his Cape Ann hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. As soon becomes clear, what remains of his family is in a state of rudderless disarray. Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), having been deserted some time before by his then-alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol), needs a legal guardian. And to Lee’s complete surprise, Joe’s will designates him.
For most of Manchester by the Sea, Lee uneasily hangs around Manchester and environs, living in his late brother’s house with his nephew. He makes funeral arrangements, tries to settle Joe’s legal and financial affairs, and struggles over what to do about his grieving but resilient nephew, who has no intention of leaving the town where he grew up—not least because, in one of this movie’s many comic touches, he has two girlfriends between whom he toggles with surprising ease. But Lee, for reasons that at first aren’t clear, really doesn’t want to stay in Manchester—the mere fact of being there seems to make him more and more anxious and angry, withdrawing sullenly when he’s not getting drunk and picking fights in bars. Over the course of a series of effortlessly interwoven flashbacks in which Michelle Williams plays Lee’s former wife, his aversion to the town starts to make more sense—and then, in a heart-stopping twist about halfway through, the reason for his self-imposed exile from his family and the world becomes horrifyingly plain.
All this may sound like the stuff of conventional family melodrama, but Lonergan’s unique ear for dialogue and his deep moral curiosity about the way real people—not movie characters—interact, react, and behave turn Manchester by the Sea into something much more. There’s a regional as well as a class-based specificity to the speech, attitudes, and mannerisms of the Chandler clan. They’re Irish Catholic, working-class New Englanders, loyal but fractious, easily provoked to violence—all facts established not by plodding expository dialogue but in the characters’ very way of speaking, their posture, the furnishings in their kitchens.
At the same time, each character in this movie—down to the smallest cameo by Lonergan himself—is an individual rather than a type, prone to spontaneous changes of mood and sometimes amusing outbursts of pettiness or ill humor. The same anguished, asocial affect that makes Lee a tragic figure occasionally gets played in a comic register, to great effect. In one such scene, a deeply awkward Lee tries to make small talk with the mother of one of his nephew’s two sweethearts long enough for the teenagers to get in a little sexytime upstairs. This is a movie that can contain multitudes, from the stark contemplation of death’s inexorability to the quotidian annoyance of forgetting where you pahked your cah.
The scene that may stay with me the longest from Manchester by the Sea is an encounter between Lee and his ex-wife that occurs late in the film. As years of pent-up sorrow, guilt, and resentment pour out in a kind of stammered operatic duet, Lee lets himself go for just a moment, speaking from the heart and weeping openly—then just as quickly shuts down again. It’s a moment that most actors would hit just a touch too hard, making sure the audience noted both moments of transition, basking first in the bathos and then in the struggle for self-control. But Affleck, giving the finest performance of an already impressive career opposite the always astonishing Williams, denies us the relief of that catharsis by underplaying the transitions between sorrow and self-command. His Lee, like everyone else in Lonergan’s densely peopled and deeply observed world—and in the world outside the movie theater too—is a work in progress, still in the midst of figuring out how to survive, forgive, and love.