Manchester By the Sea review – a minor-key masterpiece

Casey Affleck is mesmerising as a Boston janitor who has to care for his dead brother’s son, in Kenneth Lonergan’s weighty study of grief and family ties

The painful and irreparable wrongness of life is the theme of Kenneth Lonergan’s superbly acted new film about grief. It stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a guy who lives on his own in Boston, working as a janitor and seething with poisonous rage at the world and himself. Lee returns to his hometown after the death of his brother Joe to find to his astonishment that he is now legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son.

This is about life as it is lived in the real world, with unassuageable pain, loose ends untied, life lessons unlearned. Life with no narrative closure. Lee bears the burden of a terrible tragedy, which explains his exile from the place where he grew up; the current situation appears to offer the familiar trope of an unsympathetic guy poignantly redeemed by the responsibility of parenthood and odd-couple friendship with the quasi-child. Yet things don’t work out anywhere near as cleanly as that.

This film has already been hailed as a masterpiece and I think it is, though of a more conventional kind than Lonergan’s previous movie, Margaret. Manchester By the Sea sees him assume the self-aware weightiness of an Arthur Miller or a Eugene O’Neill, but blends this with some wonderfully played comic scenes, and even uses some trad jazz over a scene transition that is rather like Woody Allen. And as in Seinfeld, there is no hugging or learning. After a fire-related disaster, Lee still manages almost to burn the house down by falling asleep with a pan on the stove. It is a brilliant moment of abject horror.

Michelle Williams on Manchester by the Sea: ‘Closure only comes when we die’ – video

The Massachusetts hometown of the title looms oppressively over Lee. It is a port dominated by the fishing industry. There is no seaside, no beach. It is a place of work. Yet the nearest that Lee comes to smiling is when he goes out on his brother’s boat. When Lee gets word that he must come back, it is an almost primeval confrontation. To use his own phrase, it is as if he must “beat” this place and what happened here. Lee once lived in Manchester By the Sea with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their kids; his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) lived there with his own wife Elise (Gretchen Mol). They had a boy, Patrick, played by Ben O’Brien as a little kid; Lucas Hedges makes a tremendous troubled 16-year-old Patrick in the present day. Both Lee and Joe came to be separated from their wives.

Anger pulses from Lee’s thin, shrewd face, with clenched teeth that resemble angry little white squares like tiny tiles. And anger radiates also from the grumpy tenants whose apartments he has to fix. He sees them at their grumpiest, absorbs the feeling and sweats it from his pores. Affleck compresses and dams and forces the anger, anger that can’t quite find release in tears, except – nearly – at the very end, when Lee tells his sort-of son Patrick he is getting a place with a spare bedroom. There is a kind of dark, self-harming eroticism in the way Lee goes to bars, ignores attractive women coming on to him, and instead finds men to fight.

Lonergan intersperses the action with the flashbacks that jab agonisingly into Lee’s mind. Joe suffered from a heart condition and an unspeakably painful hospital scene replays the moment in which he gets the diagnosis, which may also be the moment when Elise walks out on him for good.

Manchester by the Sea trailer

Hedges gives a glorious performance as Patrick, the teenager who finds that tricky Uncle Lee is now his dad. He is a mixture of vulnerable, clueless and precociously worldly. When Lee shows up in the town to tell Patrick that his dad is dead, it is as if he is making a reckoning with a younger, freer version of himself.

Manchester By the Sea is a sombre and wintry film, and in fact the sheer arctic chill is what delays the funeral and creates the important, though hardly palliative interval in which the drama can take place and feelings can be worked through, as far as that’s possible. It is a movie composed in an inexpressibly sad minor key.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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