Active Ingredients: Emotional landscapes; Precise screenplay and editing
Side Effects: Denial of catharsis
With intricate contours and minute detail, Manchester by the Sea charts the emotional wreckage of the past. It’s like a topographical map of pain, a survey of hurt. Each trigger of this pain is catalogued and explored, and its linked reaction is charted across the face and body of Casey Affleck. It can be an agonizing prospect to know pain so intimately, but it’s exactly the kind of reflection Affleck’s down-on-his-luck handyman needs to return to life. And Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) writes and directs this hurt with such exactitude that its surveying feels poignant and necessary.
We are first introduced to Affleck’s Lee—after a peaceful prologue—performing small maintenance jobs for the tenets of an apartment building in Quincy. With faraway eyes, he seems to bury himself in his work; it’s both a distraction for him and a prison of his own thoughts. Kind people like his shy politeness, but others bring out a more explosive side of him. News that his older brother has died brings Lee back to Manchester, a tomb of fossilized memories of happier days and bitter reminders of past trauma.
Lonergan deftly intercuts these past memories with Lee’s present struggles to manage his brother’s affairs and care for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. As Lee gazes out the window of a lawyer’s office, a sun-dappled afternoon spent fishing returns to him, only to be cruelly stripped away again as the pressures of the day come bearing down again. Each dalliance is a twist of the knife.
In another form of intercutting, Lonergan’s precise screenplay weaves Lee’s emotional self-exile into the tender story of his budding relationship with Patrick. Lee doesn’t understand the parenting Patrick needs in the wake of his father’s death, but he tries. Lonergan is too interested in idiosyncrasy and verisimilitude to sketch a caricature of the angsty teen; rather Patrick, soulfully played by Lucas Hedges, is his own man, a tough but sensitive kid dealt a rotten hand. These small details of his life—his crummy rock band, his flirtations with two different girls—get as much attention from Lonergan as the broader emotional beats and breathe life and even joy into the story.
Very obviously, Lonergan denies the final emotional catharsis we might expect from a drama like this. It’s likely the more sophisticated approach, but I confess that the film’s coolness makes it a feel a bit less indelible. It’s a skillful and considered dramatic experience but, like Lee, the film is reluctant to too outwardly display its emotions.