Humanity and Grief in ‘Manchester by the Sea’

After Kenneth Lonergan‘s last film, “Margaret,” it wasn’t certain if he’d be back with a follow-up. That masterpiece, an interpretation of America’s reaction to 9/11, was held up for years by the studio and eventually given a limited run designed to let it die a quick death. Out of the depression that followed the theatrical assassination of “Margaret” comes “Manchester by the Sea,” another masterpiece and a profound journey through grief.

“Manchester by the Sea” opens with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) doing maintenance on a parade of apartments. Chandler is a janitor, and though he’s polite and professional with each tenant, he snaps at the first sign of rudeness from a possibly intoxicated woman. Affleck plays Lee as a coiled up cobra, ready to strike out at the smallest provocation. While drinking at a bar afterward, Lee thinks that two men across the way are talking about him. “Do you guys know me?” he asks, then starts throwing punches when the answer isn’t satisfactory. There are hints that Lee has a reputation around town, but the film is slow to reveal the origin of his anonymity.

Early on, Lee’s brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), goes into cardiac arrest due to congestive heart failure. Lee rushes to the hospital, but he’s 90 minutes away, and Joe is dead by the time he arrives. Joe will be introduced through flashback throughout the rest of the film. Lonergan expertly crafts the film’s structure to create tension and slowly reveal the reasons for Lee’s dark temper. Many details are held back and saved for the perfect moment of counterpoint.

After stopping by the hospital, Lee goes to a hockey rink to pick up Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) from practice. Patrick understands that something bad has happened when he sees Lee — every time his father had a heart attack, Lee would take care of him until Joe had recovered. But this time there will be no recovery. Hedges is a revelation in the film. His initial reactions to his father’s death are muted—he knew his father’s heart would eventually give out and has prepared himself. Still, the clinical aspects of death are hard to escape. Lee wants to see the body when he arrives, his brother has already been put in a freezer drawer in the morgue and placed in a body bag. It has only been an hour since he died, but already everything that signified Joe is gone, and there’s only a body left in his place. The freezer will haunt Patrick, too; Joe dies in the winter, and it’s too cold to dig a grave, so his body has to be kept in a freezer until the ground thaws. Even though Patrick keeps his cool for much of the film, he loses himself to emotion when he sees packages of chicken sitting in the freezer back at home. He can’t bear to think of his father’s body sitting in a freezer for months.

Aside from that one outburst, Hedges avoids the standard tropes of teenage grief in films. He doesn’t suddenly learn how to share his feelings, but instead keeps it hidden, like most teenage boys. His interactions with Lee, often hilarious, are an escape mechanism, a way to avoid thinking about the fact that his father is dead and his mother is an alcoholic who left their family long ago.

Patrick’s jokes with Lee are key to the success of “Manchester by the Sea.” The film finds a lightness in even the blackest sadness that is refreshing, but also true to life. Even the most morose funerals are filled with people just trying to find a little levity in sad situations. The film often seems like Lonergan’s way of coping with his own depression. If this humor can lead his characters out of their deep grief, perhaps it can help to end his own sadness.

Lee’s sadness seems to go far deeper than just grief for his brother, something that the flashback structure eventually reveals in excruciating detail, bit by bit. It becomes apparent that his janitorial job is just a way to hide himself from the world, to bury him in manual labor so that he never has time to examine his life and his losses. “There’s nothing there,” Lee says when a figure from the past tries to reignite a relationship with him. He keeps away from others to prevent them from learning how empty he has become. Affleck’s performance is his deepest and most fully-realized ever.

What keeps us from being swallowed up by Lee’s sadness is the film’s lush photography. Lush isn’t a word normally associated with New England in the winter, but Lonergan manages to make the shore and the snow seem romantic. There’s a sensory overload, and we can almost smell the salty air and feel the wind against our skins. Lonergan’s first film, “You Can Count on Me,” was impeccably written and acted, but it often looked more like a TV movie than a feature film. Due to Lonergan’s origins as a playwright, it made sense that he might not have a well-developed visual imagination yet. But with “Margaret” he learned how to compose an image and was able to work with an excellent cinematographer, and the present film continues in that visual tradition.

There are many moments when “Manchester by the Sea” could wallow in its own grief and become nothing more than a film about a sad man. There are more than enough of those already. But Lonergan and Affleck make the film something more, a deeper exploration of grief and family than might have seemed possible. They’ve created an achingly beautiful film, and one of the year’s best.

Watch the trailer below:

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