Manchester by the Sea (2016): Lonergan’s Lyrical, Tragic Portrait of Dead End Existence

As of today, Manchester by the Sea is one of the best pictures of the year.

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Director Kenneth Lonergan  is still best known for his feature debut, the 2000 Sundance Film Fest winner, You Can Count on Me, which introduced Mark Ruffalo to the American public.

I had the honor of giving the film its first (rave) review as a Variety critic, when it world premiered in competition in Park City.

Like other critics, I was mixed in my response to his second, troubled feature, Margaret, though I am told that the film’s longer version is better than the one I saw.

Lonergan has been widely and deservedly praised for eliciting astonishingly detailed, poignant work from his actors, on screen and on stage; he began his career as a playwright.

With a cast that includes Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and especially the young thespian Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea boasts an ensemble of modest but gifted actors, rendering affecting performances.

After his life was upended in a single night, Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, works as a janitor in a down-and-out part of Boston.

Dead-End Existence

“Lee has all but given up on other people,” says producer Matt Damon. “He’s living a dead-end existence as a handyman. He drinks too much. He’s completely disengaged from life, except for his devotion to his brother Joe and Joe’s son Patrick.”

Damon and Affleck had played together in Gus Van Sant’s flwed but still intriguing Jerry, back in 2001, which divided critics.

The two actrors had many discussions about how deeply connected Lee remains to Joe, even as he isolates himself from the rest of the world. His brother’s last act is an attempt to force Lee to reengage with the world. “Lee prefers not to spend time in his hometown, but he returns anytime Joe calls,” says Damon.

“When his brother dies, Lee is on the road to take care of all the details and to make sure Patrick is told about his father’s death in the right way by the right person. He does it all with more thoroughness and commitment to getting it done right than 100 ordinary weeping relatives. As much as he wants to be completely disengaged from life, Joe keeps him tethered to family.

Casey Affleck

“This is one of the best roles I’ve seen in a long time,” Damon adds. “I can’t think of anyone who could do it as well as Casey. He locked right in and did something no other actor could do.”

Affleck appeared in the London production of Lonergan’s This is Our Youth. alongside Damon.

“We’ve been friends ever since,” says Lonergan. “I think he’s one of the best actors out there. I knew he was going to be good in the part, but I didn’t have any idea how spectacularly nuanced and emotional his acting was going to be. Casey was extremely demanding of me — and of everyone — in a way that was stimulating and productive.  Often, in exhaustive — and exhausting — conversations about character, something gets lost.

But Casey burrowed into the situation and unearths more and more details throughout the shoot. He builds the specifics and detail he discovers until the character is real for both of us. It is a very exciting creative exercise. He was also totally unselfish in using all his experience in front of and behind the camera to make sure I was focused on making the movie I wanted to make, and in doing whatever he could to help me do what I wanted to do.”

Intriguing Mystery

By revealing Lee’s history in snippets throughout the film, Lonergan creates an intriguing mystery that pulls the audience in, says Affleck. “You get to know and love the characters before you start to learn things about the past. They’ve all got some struggles, small and large. Lee is trying to discover a reason to keep going and eventually he finds that in the relationship with his nephew. It’s funny, it’s sad. And it feels very, very real.”

But for Lee, the relationship with Patrick has an inherent cost. Manchester by the Sea is a place he wants desperately to avoid. “It’s just too charged for him there,” says Lonergan. “It’s a very small community. He can’t go anywhere without people knowing who he is and what happened to him. It’s torture for him to see any of the people there. But he has to come to help out with his nephew. He’s put in a position of either having to drag the nephew away, or stay somewhere where he can’t stand to be.”

Haunted by the Past

Lee has experienced things that would destroy most people, says Affleck. “He’s haunted by the past and has run away from everything he knows, because it’s too painful.”  Everywhere he goes, Lee faces the whispers of his former neighbors. “Lee doesn’t want to be around anybody who knows what actually happened to him,” says Affleck. “In Boston, nobody has any idea. But Patrick wants to stay in his town for the exact reason Lee doesn’t want to be there — his history.”

“Casey is a different actor than anybody working,” says producer Moore. “He has a very quick wit and a lot of depth. He brings so much emotion to his work. There’s some very sharp dialogue between Lee and Patrick. Casey’s deft sense of humor brings something unique to those exchanges. He really has an interesting approach to the role. I’m always impressed by his work, but this is a career-high role for Casey.”