After the years-long crusade to finally bring his coming-of-age drama “Margaret” to the big screen, Kenneth Lonergan has come back swinging with another sprawling epic, his somber family drama “Manchester by the Sea”. Debuting at Sundance to a great deal of enthusiasm, the film comes with a ton of momentum at its back, having just been purchased for a healthy $10M sum by Amazon, who have undoubtedly recognized its potential as an Oscar contender later in the year, both for Lonergan and star Casey Affleck, who gives the most thorough performance of his career.
The meat of the plot is simple, but Lonergan adds layer on top of layer, adding great emotional complexity to this Shakespearean tragedy about grief and reconciliation with the past. Affleck plays Boston handyman, Lee, who lives a life of quiet isolation during the day, and one of uncoiled rage at night. When he’s not arguing with tenants in the apartment complexes he works for, he’s at the bar stirring up trouble. He’s living in a cycle of anger and torment, but for what we don’t know. Scenes of a happier life alongside his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), coast through Lee’s mind like a cold breeze off the New England shore.
When Joe suddenly dies, Lee is forced out of his pattern to handle the arrangements. That includes coming home to take care of now 16-year-old Patrick, who barely seems affected by the death. He quickly rebounds, dating two girls at the same time, going to band practice, and planning for a future in town managing his father’s precious fishing boat. But for Lee, coming home means confronting a tragic past that nearly engulfed him. The anger within him is deep, down to the bone, and the entire town seems to be stuck in a mutually morose state when the locals aren’t silently judging him. While Lee can’t be bothered with any kind of female companionship, we do learn of his checkered past with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who recognizes his grief and tries to do something about it in arguably the film’s most potent scene.
Backed by an operatic score that only adds to the moody Shakespearean vibe, the film explores grief in it’s rawest, purest form. Affleck embodies the heavy weight of guilt Lee carries, delivering a perfectly sullen, brilliant performance. The surprise for many will be Hedges, who gives the film many of its few light moments, which serve as a subtle reminder of how happy Lee and Patrick used to be.
Is “Manchester by the Sea” the kind of film that audiences will flock to, though? That’s a tougher question, because the material doesn’t scream crowd-pleaser or suggest a warm and fuzzy night out with the family. But there’s something true and deeply human about the film Lonergan has crafted here, with emotions so raw they can be a little uncomfortable. Lonergan’s not trying to break the mold here, but Manchester by the Sea is a familiar tale of family struggle, pain, and redemption done with remarkable skill.