There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s never easy recovering from grief whether it involves loss of a loved one or dealing with the now inescapable fact that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Watching Casey Affleck’s character in “Manchester by the Sea,” I wonder if he will ever get past the first stage. If he’s lucky, he just might make it to the second. While some are able to get past their grief, others are doomed to be stuck in it for an eternity.
Many movies about grief have been made over the years, but few feel as bitingly honest as “Manchester by the Sea” does. It is the latest work from writer and director Kenneth Lonergan who previously gave us “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” and he really tops himself with this one. While this may, on the surface, seem like a depressing movie, it is one filled a surprising amount of laughter and a wealth of interesting characters whom we watch struggle with the steep hurdles life has thrown at them as well as the snowy weather which chills all those who live in Massachusetts during the winter months.
Affleck plays Lee Chandler who, as the movie starts, works as a janitor and lives in the tiniest of apartments in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is a quiet man and one who is not quick to make friends, especially with those who stare at him for a couple of seconds too long. His face seems as frozen as the snow he constantly shovels off his front porch, so we know the movie will be a journey into discovering how Lee ended up looking so bereft of life.
One day, Lee gets word his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away after suffering a heart attack. This forces Lee to drive to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to meet up with family members and relatives he has long since become estranged from, and his reaction to seeing them all seems strangely serene as if he has been preparing for this moment in a way no one else would bother to. But as the movie goes on, we come to see why Lee can never again be comfortable in his hometown as it is filled with memories and ghosts he may never ever put behind him.
Now in many ways this movie sounds like a typical one about someone reflecting on the memory of a friend who is no longer living, but Lonergan never tries to take the easy way out here. He presents us with characters who are ever so real, and their reactions to the tragedies thrown in their faces feels honest as one never responds to something so painful in the way you might expect. Everyone is far from perfect and no one here is easily likable, but the characters grow on you as they attempt to navigate past the wreckage of their lives.
Lonergan’s talent as a writer has never been in doubt, but what astounded me most about “Manchester by the Sea” is how confident his direction is. His cast ends up giving such naturalistic performances to where they inhabit their characters more than play them. I never felt like I was watching a movie, but instead it seemed like I was eavesdropping on people whose lives and problems feel more real than we ever could expect. Pulling something like this off requires major talent, and Lonergan has it in massive supply.
All eyes are on Affleck who gives what is far and away one of the best performances of 2016. His character of Lee Chandler reminded me of William Hurt in “The Accidental Tourist” and Nick Nolte in “Affliction” in that those actors played characters so damaged by horrific tragedies in life to where they could no longer process a wide range of emotions. Affleck has a tricky role here as Lee looks to be experiencing intense grief from start to finish, but at the same time he is constantly running away from circumstances which will cause those emotions to overwhelm him in a way he feels he can never handle. This must have been an exhausting role to play, but it’s no surprise to see Affleck rise to the challenge.
There is not a single weak link to be found in the cast here as each actor, no matter how small their role is, creates a multi-dimensional character worth following. Michelle Williams in particular has a show stopping moment as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, as she tries to make peace with him after all they have been through. Williams has always been fearless in exploring emotions many of us have tried to numb ourselves to whether we realize it or not and, just like she did in “Blue Valentine,” she digs deep into the tragic nature of her character as Randi appears far more ready to deal with past than Lee is.
I also have to single out Lucas Hedges who gives an honest portrayal of a teenager as Lee’s nephew, Patrick. So many teenagers in movies these days seem designed to appeal to a popular demographic regardless of whether the target audience can relate to them or not. But Hedges gives us one who quickly reminds us of how we juggled a number of girlfriends (if we were lucky to, that is) while dealing with a tragedy no one that young should ever have to deal with. Hedges is a real find as he makes Patrick a far more mature character than his emotionally wounded uncle, and he is as unforgettable as Affleck is in this movie.
In a year which proved to be a mediocre one for motion pictures, “Manchester by the Sea” is easily one of the best for many reasons. If it has any flaws, they are hard to see on the first viewing. But even if you do spot any flaws, they are not enough to take away from how great a movie this is. Lonergan has given us a cinematic masterpiece which demands your attention as it deals with a subject that is never easy to grapple with. While the movie’s ending proves to be understandably ambiguous, he never leaves these characters without a sense of hope for the future.
Watching this movie reminded me of an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Pit Bull Sessions” in which Frank Pembleton and Paul Falsone interrogate a man whose pit bulls have been trained for dogfighting have killed his grandfather. This man, who was played by Paul Giamatti by the way, cares for his dogs far more than he does for any member of his family to where he shows little, if any, remorse for what has happened to his grandfather. Falsone is incensed over how the son seems indifferent to what has happened to a member of his family, and it leads to a classic exchange between him and Pembleton.
“That bastard can feel,” Falsone says.
“He can’t, that’s the horror,” Pembleton replies.
Sad but very true.