A young girl named Margaret thinks she has inadvertently caused a traffic accident. She couldn’t do anything with that thought. There are no friendly shoulders to lean on until it all passes away. It becomes clear nobody is going to miraculously appear to save her. Gradually, her inner fire of life is snuffed out. This girl’s story was written by playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who had made a brilliant debut feature titled ‘You Can Count on Me’ (2000). Margaret was written in 2003, went to shoot in 2005 and then got caught in post-production limbo. Its 150 minute theatrical version was released in 2011 and later the extended version of 186 minutes. The film after a long struggle received the praise it deserved. However, the fate of Kenneth Lonergan’s recent harrowing drama Manchester by the Sea (2016) was different. It was acclaimed the moment it debuted (at Sundance) and was stacked up higher with Oscar buzz with Amazon Studios taking up $10 million distribution deal. Like his previous two films, Mr. Lonergan once again builds a morally complex world, paying attention to minutiae of details, while allowing the emotions to simmer beneath the surface.
Kenneth Lonergan’s movies don’t have the kind of elaborate story we usually come to expect in films dealing with grief or loss. He hints at the causes that has led to character’s personal trauma. But for the most part his narratives are about observing the behavior as gloom impedes every step the characters take forward. Mr. Lonergan’s stories have an insurmountable tragedy at its center, which with little emotional manipulation could become full-blown melodrama. However, his writing is so naturalistic, humane and when combined with mesmerizing performances we witness a compelling meditation on trauma and loss. Manchester by the Sea opens up on the breezy sea of the title. A couple of adult males and a small boy are fishing from a motor boat. Amidst the witty conversation, the young man asks the boy whom would he choose if he's got a chance to live with only one person in an isolated island. The boy, of course chooses his dad, who is at the steer. May be, the young guy -- the boy’s nephew -- would have thought there’s remote chance of the boy choosing him. The bond between the three is strongly felt and the playful question set things up for the impending gloom.
The same young man is seen from an observable distance in the next scene. He is named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and he is shoveling snow outside a suburban apartment building. Lee is a handyman and janitor, leading a very simple existence in a sparsely furnitured basement room. His sad eyes aren’t capable of processing the frustration of the tenants or the approaches of attractive females. He loses his cool when giving a profanity-laden reply to an annoying tenant. He deliberately picks up a fight in the bar. The humdrum quality of Lee’s life sneaks up on us and we are dying to know what made him to be like this. Soon, Lee leaves his life in Boston and drives to Manchester (one and a half hour drive). He has received the news about the death of his beloved elderly brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). As Lee takes down the hospital building's elevator to the morgue, a brief flashback informs us of Joe’s congenital heart-condition and introduces to some of the family members.
It soon becomes clear that the familial structure is in utter disarray. Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) has been long abandoned by his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol). Lee skirts around the town, making arrangements for funeral, meeting up with the lawyer. To Lee’s complete surprise, Joe has named him to be Patrick’s guardian until the 16 year old turns 18. Over the elegantly interwoven flashback, we learn about Lee's beautiful life with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) which was brutally uprooted by an accident. At that point, Lee’s aversion for the hometown or camaraderie becomes understandable. The reasons for disconnect between Lee’s appearance in the opening scene and now is crystal clear. Moreover, Lee doesn’t know what to do with his lively nephew, who doesn’t want to move to Boston because he worries about leaving his two girlfriends. Of course, this all might seem so familiar and melodramatic to read. But, on-screen each scene brims with genuine, depthful emotions and idiosyncratic mannerisms.
There are no expository dialogues in Lonergan’s script. Who is Lee Chandler? The younger member of an Irish Catholic family, belonging to working class of Manchester; loyal to family and friends; easily provoked to brawls; heavy-drinker; football fan, etc. ‘Who he is’ is established through the behavioral attributes than through pieces of dialogues. Lee sitting in his sofa in the dark, facing away from the little light glowing through basement window conveys his predicament. The picture of Jesus on the wall tells a lot about the new life Patrick’s mother has chosen for herself. The small matter of a frozen ground unearths intense sorrow on Patrick. Randi’s way of speaking (or her inability to speak) to Lee in the scene towards end gives a feeling of nightmare she must have been through. Moment-by-moment we are absorbed by the non-manipulative, genuine behavior and little, heedful acts. The dialogues aren’t also crisp or clear-cut to design 'quotes pictures' for desktop wallpaper. It’s an antithesis from that manner of writing. Lee and his family face different kinds of unspeakable tragedy. And, since the tragedy is unspeakable they talk about lot of other things, which indirectly convey their emotional instability or just their awkwardness.
Lonergan punctuates each interaction with measured amount of humor and misery. Almost all of the characters directly affected by the tragedy behave like emotional illiterates (borrowing a word from Bergman). Words overlap and nothing is resolved through talking. How many movies have we come across where the humane connection between bruised adult and teenager leading to an redemptive, sentimental flick. But, here the catharsis we expect for the characters are suggested to be beyond reach (at least way beyond the movie’s ending). This clumsy nature of using the words leads to some of the movie’s precious moments. In fact, we get to like this clumsiness because it looks so real. I only got annoyed when some supporting characters try to sentimentalize the situation (for eg, Silvie’s behavior when Lee calls up to funeral parlor). In the film, most of the characters in the periphery lucidly convey what they wanted to say. Patrick’s hockey coach, doctor Bethany or Matthew Broderick’s character is certainly removed from the tragedy confronted by Chandler family; and so they talk in a genuine but clear-cut manner. Lonergan’s also knows when to not use dialogues (for eg, when Lee meets George to talk about Patrick) so as to avoid stoking the dramatic quotient. Furthermore, the people lingering in the background add some color to the narrative. The awful garage band ‘Stentorian’, the earnest funeral parlor manager, and even Kenneth Lonergan’s own cameo (as the guy in blue jacket) fits well into the details of ordinariness (all of these people comes off as individuals rather than extras).
Despite the nuanced form of writing, the film could still have been a one-note of misery, if not for the excellent directorial skill and soul-crushing performances. Due to the absence of grand story arc, Lonergan keeps his attention on individual moments. His unobtrusive camera calmly gazes at the vulnerability and things ravaging the soul of people occupying the frames. The beautiful seaside, wintry setting perfectly suits the emotional reality of Chandler family. Director Lonergan makes us dwell in the ordinary for the most time that when the real tragedy rises, we are left to contemplate powerful emotions. In one hushed-up sequence (nightmare telling about smoke in the kitchen) we get a closer look at the hell he is living in which was so stupefying to look. The other elegantly realized tragic scene is the one when Patrick has a panic attack after seeing frozen chicken. As Lonergan confides in his interview (to Avclub), there are happy accidents too: like the moment with EMS employees having trouble with the stretcher.
Manchester by the Sea is mostly about how men process (or don't process) their grievances. From the inability to think where they parked their car to the unease to contemplate death, this is an excellent study of men struggling for relief and self-control. It’s all finely expressed in Casey Affleck’s most understated performance as Lee. By the end of the film, Lee doesn’t attain any catharsis or have figured out how to forgive and move on, but his cheerlessness and unyielding nature are astonishing to behold. Lee easily brushes away the sympathies are people cut off from him. But, his posture changes with unrelenting behavior of Patrick or with breakdown of ex-wife Randi. In those brief moments, Affleck makes Lee to open up his heart, but the onslaught of pain forces him to close up quickly. These little moments of emotional passage are impressively portrayed. Naturally, two scenes standout in terms of performances: the one in lawyer’s office, which flashes back to the past; the stammered, overlapped conversation between Lee and Randi. Nevertheless, I loved watching all of the smallest gestures too. In one scene after the bar-fight, Lee’s minor injuries are tended by George’s wife. For a moment, he leans on her and softly cries – one of the rare showcases of Lee’s vulnerability. Altogether, a grand performance that neatly fits with Lonergan’s refusal to dramatize effects of trauma.
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (137 minutes) isn’t exactly a tearjerker, although its story-line seems to say the opposite. It’s not the kind of film where few tears wash away the emotions of grief, lingering in the narrative surface. The atmosphere of grief here is more profound. It doesn’t provide any easy answers or even try to pretend that it has answers. Traumatized characters embrace their family members, but it doesn’t lead to redemption or solace. We can’t even say if the grieved characters are chasing for redemption. Grief has rarely looked this real, unexaggerated, and yet very interesting enough to watch on-screen.