'Manchester by the Sea' is devastating —and also hilarious
The third film from Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count on Me," "Margaret") watches as Casey Affleck deals with his brother's death. But don't be surprised if you laugh. A lot.
‘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.
Such is what you get with Kenneth Lonergan, who went from the most acclaimed playwright of his generation to a filmmaker of equal power if less respect. After his insightful and precisely written “You Can Count on Me,” Lonergan suffered the grind and infamy of “Margaret,” another film about grief and guilt, and one even more ambitious than his latest. “Margaret” sat in various editing rooms for four years, its maker battling a toxic cocktail of distributor woes and legal nonsense. In the end it was dumped, unloved, in theaters. Thing is, even in its compromised form — a longer and, yes, better, version was released on video — it’s a masterpiece. Lonergan may come from the theater, but he saw in cinema the chance to tinker with how we re-present life itself. His film was messy, prone to digressions, featuring wild experiments with sound: Many scenes boast audible dialogue from characters buried deep in the frames or off-screen entirely, battling for our ears with a high school girl (Anna Paquin), who doesn’t know how to deal with accidentally causing the death of a stranger.
“Manchester by the Sea” isn’t as in-your-face radical as “Margaret,” but it carries on, sometimes even smooths out, some of the same forward-thinking ideas of how you construct a film. Lonergan is still playing with character studies that don’t follow a clean path, but spiral off for long stretches in seemingly random directions, ones that fill them in while making them seem too complicated to capture in a mere film. What Lonergan adds here is a stronger sense of humor. The people of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. tend to be argumentative, to put it mildly, always quick to pick a fight. (Lonergan puts in a cameo as a passerby who starts some stuff with Lee, then happily fans the flames of escalation.) Everyone is short and curt with each other, and not just the childish macho men; the women, including Michelle Williams' as Lee's ex-wife, bring it as good as anyone. The entire cast throws themselves into this two-faced approach; Affleck’s playing a funny asshole who’s crying on the inside, but both extremes of his personality are vivid and powerful.
Again, the jokes (again, such that they are) aren’t there for comic relief — brief respites from unimaginable pain. They’re outgrowths of the trauma, ways Lee and everyone else fights off dealing with wounds that will never heal. Because they won’t. That’s one thing “Manchester by the Sea” understands better than most films on the subject: We get a little, even a lot better, but the longer people live, the longer they resemble a walking, talking open sore. The film is a kind of Rorschach Test: You may spend the film fighting through tears, or you may spend most of it suppressing belly laughs. Either way, you’ll understand that it’s a masterpiece.