Many screenwriters struggle to be subtle. Same goes for lots of directors. Even when you get an idea so great; a character study that will reveal some truth about the human condition, the temptation to stray into what is trite and obvious becomes too much. That’s why so many films follow the same beats, and why if a story contains a tragic moment it is usually played for an overt amount of tears with sweeping strings or deliberately upsetting minimal piano. Writers and directors (and, of course, executives) worry that audiences may miss something if it is nuanced and graceful. So they thrust it in your face. In doing so they stray from reality.
It is for these very reasons that Kenneth Lonergan, writer and director of Manchester By The Sea, deserves praise and plaudits. For Lonergan has crafted something genuine; an authentic and dramatic character study which is not afraid to play it subtle. In doing so he has produced a truly great piece of work.
The story centres on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Lee is a man living behind a mask. He seems devoid of emotion, subjecting himself to a life of thankless work as a janitor and living in a flat which is more akin to a prison cell. He has no friends, shuns contact from strangers, and is prone to outbursts of aggression when drunk. We meet him as he shovels snow to clear a path for the residents of an apartment block, and we soon return to this image on subsequent days. This is a man battling with the burden of a task that won’t let up; that returns each day anew.
A 90 minute drive up the coast is his home town. A fishing port where his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is well thought of locally, and is raising his son alone.
When tragedy strikes, Lee is forced out of his hiding place in Boston and has to come home to take up the mantle of legal guardian to Joe’s teenage boy. This is where most of the film takes place, alongside frequent flashbacks to Lee’s earlier life in Manchester. It’s in these dual displays of life that Lonergan’s masterful screenplay starts to truly sing. We learn snippets about the true nature of Lee both in the present and the past, but we are not able to complete the puzzle. That is until around the 60 minute mark, when Lonergan lets fly with one of the most disturbing and tragic moments in film history. It is a flashback that wholly explains Lee’s reason to escape; to be disconnected from humanity.
As I mentioned earlier, Lonergan doesn’t play this moment for effect. There’s no great climax of sound. There’s no enormous reaction from Affleck. It is played for reality and it is astonishing to watch. There’s a tiny moment, for example, involving Lee returning to a shopping bag carrying beer and snacks, and it is gut wrenching in its truthfulness. That may sound odd, but when you see it you’ll know.
From this turning point we understand every word and every action. Joe’s teenage son Patrick can’t quite appreciate what it all means, just as Lee doesn’t appreciate what Patrick is going through. They are both awkwardly flung together trying to make their way through.
It is real life. It’s not my life, and I hope that it’s not your life either, for it is a sad life. But it’s real. The performances of all the leads (and in particular Affleck) are to thank for this, but so is the script. For whilst you may not recognise the specificity of the happenings and events, the reactions, the emotions, the consequences and the humour are genuine.
This is a film that will stay with you.