Casey Affleck was not the original inhabitant of the role of Lee Chandler, but the entirety of Manchester by the Sea feels built around his skill set. It’s testament to Affleck, and to director-scribe Kenneth Lonergan, that the Assassination of Jesse James actor’s unique brand of restraint ends up being the film’s secret weapon. It not only punctuates every scene and every other story beat, but forms the very basis for the film’s withholding nature. Affleck is at his career-best, but he doesn’t get what you might call an “Oscar Scene,” a showy moment to be played ad nauseam through Spring, because as in life, there’s no convenient release valve for his teeming frustrations. The death of his brother Joe Chandler (played by Kyle, also Chandler) turns Lee’s already shambled life upside down, bringing his past back to haunt him as the film takes a heavy and at times hilarious look at the multitudinous nature of grief in what might not only be the most devastating film of 2016, but the most cathartic.
Washed up, divorced and working as a handyman in a New England suburb, Lee spends his days listening to the bitter family woes of his clientele as he waits for his brother to succumb to an illness. He spends his nights picking fights at bars, channeling the anger at his past and present circumstances in the only way he knows how. When the news finally reaches him, he has no choice but to keep it together. For his own sake, and for the sake of his teen nephew Patrick, a child of divorce who grew up knowing his father’s days were numbered.
We get to know the late Joe through flashbacks, his time on the family fishing boat with his son and his brother sprinkled intermittently and with intention. It’s that same boat that becomes a point of contention after his death, and his loss begins to feel more real as we dive further into the narrative, peeling back the layers of his and Lee’s divorces, each used to explore the familial nature of loss: how it doesn’t need to involve death to feel real, and how shattering it is when it does.
News travels faster than empathy in Longergan’s small-town New England, and he augments the simplicity of his suburban setting with the skillful use of sound, allowing his actors’ posture to take control of his uncomplicated frames as he sets the mood diegetically. Soon, sound even becomes an emotional signal for proximity to death and its effects. A drunken stupor prior to having experienced loss results in Lee not being able to hear a nearby accident, but years later he’s unable to get through a simple phone call with the funeral home because of the sounds of Patrick setting the table. In moments of grief, death can feel all-permeating, even to the point of defeat.
Lee has lived more life than Patrick. He’s seen more grief, more loss, more heartache, and he’s intimately familiar with death’s terms & conditions. Patrick on this other hand has spent his life preparing to be struck by an unknown force. He deals with it as best he can (that is to say, not at all) because the realities of adulthood haven’t yet factored in to his processing. He’s as concerned with where he’s going to live as he is with losing his virginity, as actor Lucas Hedges grants him a three-dimensional smarm that makes him an absolute nightmare for his uncle.
Hedges is the hedonist to Affleck’s straight-man. A curious dynamic to include in a film such as this, but one that works wonders given that its comedic moments are rooted deeply in character, and feature two of the year’s finest performances. Hedges is fiery and quick-witted, but he grounds Patrick’s ridiculous funeral anxieties in a very real sense of denial. He pokes and prods at the grieving Lee, a pain in his ass if there ever was one, as the two form a bizarrely effective comedic duo in this dramedy about dealing with death. Hedges’ timing stems from walking a fine line between wounded and guarded (which he does with precision), allowing Affleck’s restraint to take center stage yet again, his voice cracking with the sound of frustration, and under the weight of responsibility.
This comedic friction is an integral part of Kenneth Lonergan’s healing process. Not merely the idea of laughing through pain (that’s more for us than it is the characters), but varying approaches to grief coming into contact, perhaps even colliding, with each having equal importance. There’s no one way to tackle grief, no one way to channel anger, and certainly no way to know which version of it will hit you before it happens. But it’s in understanding the uniqueness of each process that healing can begin and comfort can be found. In others, and in oneself. There’s no map for dealing with loss, but Manchester by the Sea is a comforting reminder that you don’t need one to navigate something so vast, so confusing and so all-encompassing as long as it’s a shared experience.