Some writer-directors, like Woody Allen, manage to crank out a film a year like clockwork. Others, like Kenneth Lonergan, take their sweet time. He’s directed just two previous movies (2000’s You Can Count on Me and 2011’s Margaret), but rarely has our patience been as rewarded as it is with his latest, Manchester by the Sea.
A richly textured, emotionally devastating meditation on grief (a theme that runs through all of Lonergan’s films), Manchester stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a quiet, put-upon handyman whose older brother (Kyle Chandler) drops dead from a heart attack, leaving behind a 16-year-old son (Lucas Hedges). When Lee returns to the blue-collar Massachusetts town of the title where he grew up to make plans for the funeral, he learns that he’s been named as his nephew’s guardian. It’s a responsibility he has no interest in taking on. Through a carefully measured series of layer-peeling flashbacks, we slowly discover why that is. The town holds nothing but painful memories for Lee — a past he’d prefer to move on from but can’t. He’s a walking ghost, haunted by tragedy and regret, incapable of making the smallest kind of small talk.
Affleck has never had a role that matches his minimal, anti-charisma style like this one. His tendency to be mumbly and awkward and withholding fits his character perfectly. And Hedges, as a temperamental teenager working through loss in his own authentically teenage way, is a real discovery. Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife, doesn’t get many scenes, but she cracks your heart open in the ones she has.
If all of this makes Manchester sound like a three-hankie bummer, it isn’t. There are unexpected moments of humor, redemption, and grace. Lonergan has given us a masterpiece. See it, then wait for whatever he does next…in 2022. A