By Pamela Zoslov
Manchester by the Sea, the new film written and directed by the playwright Kenneth Lonergan, has much common with Lonergan’s well-regarded 2000 film You Can Count on Me. Both address complicated relationships between adult siblings, one responsible and the other reprobate; a history of tragic accidental death; and issues surrounding surrogate parenting of fatherless boys.
The idea for the tearjerking drama, which takes its name from the working-class Massachusetts coastal town where it’s set, originated with actor-directors John Krasinski and Matt Damon; Damon was originally slated to direct.
Lonergan’s orientation is more New York-centric, as reflected in his own background and his plays, including Lobby Hero and film scripts Analyze This and Gangs of New York. To prepare for this film, he spent time absorbing the North Shore atmosphere and getting to know its taciturn inhabitants. The quiet, windswept nautical setting, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, is a major character in Manchester.
The story centers on Lee Chandler, an apartment-house janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. The early scenes, which show Lee fixing sinks and unclogging toilets for a series of eccentric, complaining tenants, are lively and amusing, promising something crackling and energetic in the working-class Boston mode of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter. Lee, played by the good-looking Casey Affleck, is a young man of few words and an explosive temper. Provoked by a woman tenant, he curses at her, earning a reprimand from his boss. Later at a bar, he punches a couple of young businessmen just for looking at him.
The tone shifts as Lee gets the news that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), a commercial lobsterman, has died of heart failure. Lee must now return to his hometown, the fishing village of Manchester, to make burial arrangements. The film juxtaposes flashbacks with the present day, filling us in on the Chandlers’ history. We see Joe receiving his grim cardiac diagnosis, and witness the warm camaraderie among Joe, Lee, and Joe’s son, Patrick, aboard Joe’s fishing boat. (Even his name, Lee, is nautical.)
At the reading of Joe’s will, Lee is shocked to learn that Joe appointed him guardian of Patrick, now 16 and a popular high school athlete. Patrick, who like his uncle has a propensity for punching people, is played by Lucas Hedges, who looks a little like Britain’s Prince Harry.
Why Joe never told Lee about the guardianship arrangement is not explained, but withal, Lee moves into Joe’s house and looks desperately for alternatives to moving back to Manchester. Can someone else look after Patrick so Lee can stay in Quincy? Patrick’s estranged mother, a recovering alcoholic, is lurking somewhere in the background and makes a brief reappearance. So perturbed is Lee about his fate that one day, punchy fellow that he is, he breaks a bedroom window with his fist.
Lee awkwardly navigates the role of surrogate parent to Patrick, who relies for solace not on Lee but on his schoomates and the two girlfriends he’s juggling (he’s also a bit of an ass). The movie spends inordinate time on the ins and outs, as it were, of Patrick’s sexual relationships.
Flashbacks demonstrate why returning to Manchester ignites old traumas for Lee. We see his former married life, in an unkempt but happy enough home with wife Randi (Michelle Williams, one of cinema’s all-time great weepers) and his three young children. Profanity flies between the couple, but also a rough-and-tumble affection.
The film’s emotional climax is a sequence dramatizing the tragedy that ended Lee’s family life. Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor swells to a volume that nearly drowns out the dialogue. The music, a sentimental cue second in popularity only to Barber’s Adagio, is familiar from innumerable movies, TV shows, pop songs and computer games. The scene reveals why Lee is so troubled and lives a poor handyman’s life. His unhealed grief over the event, a terrible disaster caused by his own negligence, is presumably the reason for all the punching. In light of the revelation, you might wonder why Joe appointed Lee guardian of his son, but maybe Joe had an unshakeable faith in Lee.
The film is slow and digressive, reflecting the tempo of life in Manchester but also suggesting that Lonergan, the director, can’t edit Lonergan the writer. There are superfluous scenes, including two visits to the hospital morgue to view Joe’s corpse, and an unfunny sitcom digression as Patrick enlists his uncle to distract his girlfriend’s mom so he can have sex with the girl.
Preserving his vision is important to Lonergan, who two years ago prevailed in a contentious six-year legal battle over his 2011 film Margaret — declared a masterpiece by some — over the film’s final cut and other issues. That film runs over three hours; Manchester clocks in at two hours, 17 minutes. Such prolixity is surprising for a playwright, as are the clunky lines uttered by various officials (lawyer, doctor, hockey coach, policeman, undertaker), especially since Lonergan’s plays have been praised for clever dialogue.
Nonetheless, the film, and Affleck’s performance, are heavily favored for Academy Award nominations. What viewers will likely carry with them is a key melodramatic scene between Lee and Randi, in which her abject regret meets his inarticulate despair. The poignancy of Affleck and Williams’ acting is the main strength of this attractive, sprawling, and rather exhausting film. Grade: B-