‘Manchester by the Sea’
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges
5 (out of 5) Globes
At its midpoint, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” contains one of the most devastating, brutal, emotional sequences in recent memory. Dropped into this ten-weepie stretch is also a slapstick joke, concerning a paramedics fumbling madly with a gurney. One doesn’t cancel the other out. There are plenty of dramas — especially, like the new Lonergan, about grief — in which despair is undercut by comic relief: a dumb joke, out of nowhere yet heavily calculated, usually followed by everyone chuckling sweetly.
In “Manchester by the Sea” — both one of saddest, most unflinchingly honest films ever made about death as well as a serious contender for the year’s laugh riot — the jokes, such as they are, are an important part of the fabric. It’s not as simple as “people laugh so as not to cry.” It’s more accurately that it’s about people who laugh or do things that are, to viewers watching them at least, funny because no one wants to go there. Because going there is too horrible to imagine.
The deceased party is Joe (Kyle Chandler), who we’ll see in flashbacks that sprout up at random, as they do in life. The movie’s hero, of sorts, is his brother Lee (Casey Affleck), who when we meet him lives a vaguely miserable life as a grumpy fixer-upper in a ramshackle Boston apartment. We’ll learn his backstory much later, but before then he has to deal with the aftermath of his sibling’s death: the paperwork, the calls to the funeral home, Joe’s now orphaned teenage son (Lucas Hedges), who needs a guardian. He also has to contend with being back home in the North Shore area of Massachusetts, where everyone is hilariously tetchy, whose denizens don’t wait more than a few hours after a funeral to argue heatedly about “Star Trek.”
Life goes on, sort of, except that it really doesn’t. Tragedy and guilt ease up, but only in degrees. Death creates practical headaches, some life-changing, some powerfully minor. But the dead go on living, in ways bittersweet but sometimes gutting. There’s another tragedy, long in the past, which we won’t see in its gruesome full till the halfway mark. It tells us a lot about Lee, but it doesn’t fully explain him.