In “Manchester by the Sea,” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan finds operatic drama in an unlikely place: the cold, abiding grey of a coastal Massachusetts winter, amid shingle-style homes and a picturesque town square, with the sounds of seagulls flocking above and the lull of fishing boats rocking gently against a dock.
And he finds it in an improbable protagonist: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a maintenance worker for an apartment complex in suburban Boston, who seems lost somewhere far from his everyday life for reasons that become revealed over the course of the picture.
It’s a magisterial achievement, a piece that captures the deepest recesses of the soul as they’re found within the sort of ordinary man that’s typically invisible on the big screen, occupying an everyday setting that’s rendered in such precise detail it feels like a universe onto itself. The picture unfolds with a naturalist’s eye for real-world drama mixed with a deep spiritual struggle.
Lee returns home to the seaside village of Manchester-by-the-Sea upon the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and the unexpected reality that he has been made the legal guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedgus).
For Lee there are demons here, immense and unrelenting, and the movie comes down to the internal war between the strife devouring him and his burgeoning desire to put it aside for his own happiness and the young man who desperately needs him.
Lonergan has made two previous movies about the lingering consequences of death and tragedy, “You Can Count On Me,” about adult siblings emotionally paralyzed by the death of their parents in a car accident during their childhood, and “Margaret,” in which a New York bus driver’s carelessness kills a pedestrian.
He understands the ways a traumatic past seeps into mundane moments — when you’re driving on the highway or taking care of personal business, for example — even years later. The ramifications of the horrible event that has shaped Lee (and which won’t be elaborated upon here) flow through the bloodstream of “Manchester by the Sea.”
The memories linger in the marrow of this place; in the hollow faces of its residents, in the darkness of Joe’s home, in the very fabric of the streets and buildings that paid witness. They’re pushed against by Patrick in his own moment of personal crisis; the teen is a relentlessly optimistic force in Lee’s life that offers something resembling hope in the abiding despair.
Catharsis doesn’t happen, it can’t happen, because the sum of our experiences define who we are, and some are too immense for extrication.
Affleck plays Lee as if he’s forever collapsing under an enormous weight, walking with a slouch, conversing in hushed tones and prone to drawn-out silences that endure long past the point of being uncomfortable.
But the performance connects because of the persistent sense that there’s a real and complicated person there, beneath the shell, and the star fully commits to that struggle. Lee wants to break free, to laugh again, to come home again, but sometimes you just can’t.