Throughout Manchester by the Sea, women fall, sometimes literally, at the feet of Casey Affleck’s brooding handyman. While on the job — albeit in the unromantic pursuit of unclogging a toilet — he overhears a client confessing her attraction to him, on the phone to a friend, through the bathroom walls. It leads to nothing more than a generous tip.
At a bar, a comely female trips and spills her drink on his coat, using the accident as a conversational overture that peters promptly toward awkward silence. Later, the single mother of his nephew’s girlfriend invites him inside for a drink, only to find her valiant efforts at chitchat rebuffed with averted eyes and monosyllabic responses.
What these functioning females fail to realize is that Lee Chandler, Affleck’s anhedonic protagonist, is too spiritually wounded to notice or care, let alone reciprocate. He’s not a man so much as the husk of one, as drained of feeling as a numbed psych patient.
So deadened is Lee that when he receives a phone call, as the film’s inciting incident, informing him of his older brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) death from cardiac arrest, his eyes register nothing. Leaving a bitter Boston winter for the slate-gray environs of the title town, Lee soon learns that he’s been willed guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose mother (Gretchen Mol) is out of the picture in more ways than one, battling her own demons in Minnesota.
The forced relationship between these two emotionally hamstrung men forms the ostensible plot of Lonergan’s character study. Neither is particularly fond of each other’s company. Over the years, Lee would only materialize at his nephew’s side when his brother’s heart condition required him to intervene. To Patrick, a hockey-playing, guitar-shredding wiseacre juggling two girlfriends, his uncle is at best a neutral facilitator of transport and at worst an ersatz parent whose occasional tin-pot prohibitions are a nuisance. Lonergan understands that their journey toward acceptance — of each other and of the repressed grief they share — is long, and worth every frame of the film’s 197-minute running time.
Central to this quietly devastating dramedy’s effectiveness is its understanding of our unhealthy responses to trauma, beyond the present-day story. Joe’s untimely passing didn’t turn Lee into a joyless, violence-prone cipher: That happened years earlier, in scenes glimpsed in flashback, when he was a gregarious, happily married man with three children, until an unspeakable horror shattered whatever tranquility he had captured. These revelations unfold, during memory-triggered flashbacks, with a novelistic sense of patience and mystery. As in Faulkner, the past still haunts the crushed souls of Manchester by the Sea, leaving its characters — not just Lee — limping toward confrontation and redemption.
Lonergan knows, more than just about any contemporary American director, about real life — its surprises and compromises, its epochal moments and everyday upheavals, its obstinate, blinkered denizens. This has been clear to the enraptured champions of his two previous features, You Can Count on Me and Margaret, works of profound interiority that are suffused with longing.
Manchester lacks the epic scope of Margaret, but it’s his naturally funniest film, and like his earlier work, its strives for extra-cinematic pathos in the literary and musical arts — in the streetwise poetry of its dialogue, with its rough color and overlapping interjections, and the operatic soundtrack, a contrapuntal heaven of chorales, sonatas and adagios. Not every film can deploy Handel’s Messiah without lapsing into seasonal sentiment or theological subtext, but Lonergan’s usage of the oratorio is both ironic and not, suggesting the possibility of transcendence even at the worst of times.
Not that Lee is an avatar for Christ; he’s more like an Angry Young Man from a kitchen-sink U.K. drama, matured in years if not mentality. In Affleck’s ability to constantly underplay — to rein in scenes in which another actor (or director) might favor volume and grandiosity — he finds the buried grace in a man without graces. Like a Brando bruiser in the ’40s or a Nicholson vagabond in the ’70s, his pain is largely invisible, and therefore more deeply felt. That Affleck is the early Best Actor Oscar front-runner is already a victory for subtlety in a bracingly unsubtle time.
On paper, there’s little to like in Lee Chandler; on the screen, he’s a fractured man we want nothing more than to put back together. Even if only a few of the shards manage to reconnect, we’re thankful — blessed, even — for small favors.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Director: Kenneth Lonergan; Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Opens: Friday at Cobb Downtown Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Cinemark Palace Regal Shadowood Boca and Living Room Theaters in Boca, Movies of Delray, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale and more.