Two people, who once loved each other and maybe still do, face each other on a sidewalk on a chilly New England afternoon. Years ago, they endured a tragedy that pulled them apart; now, upon a chance meeting, Randi (Michelle Williams) wants to make amends.
“I don’t have anything big to say,” she begins, as Lee (Casey Affleck), her ex-husband, tries desperately to shut the conversation down. Bits of sentences and bursts of emotion overlap, haltingly; each steps gingerly on the other’s words, trying not to hurt but knowing that every syllable brings pain. “There’s nothing there,” says Lee finally, flatly, like he’s sealing off a draft in a remote attic window. It’s perhaps a two-minute scene, and it’s as rich as any novel.
“Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“Margaret,” “You Can Count on Me”), is a movie of astonishing honesty, an exploration of the kind of grief that causes a man to disappear, even as he’s standing in front of us.
Lee, as we come to meet him in the film’s early scenes, is an apartment-building janitor in Boston, a solitary man who holds his shoulders tightly, as if he might fall apart if he released them. A phone call, informing him of the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), sends Lee home to Manchester, the fishing village where he grew up. There he reluctantly takes charge of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) – and there we learn, through gradual flashbacks that overlap like waves on a beach, what happened in Lee and Randi’s past.
And while their tragedy is horrific (a brief dream sequence referring to it is so poignant as to be nearly unwatchable), Lonergan understands that life–and great drama–is made up of more than grief. Patrick, though shaken by the loss of his beloved dad, is a refreshingly normal kid who quickly gets back to juggling girlfriends, rehearsing his band (“We are Stentorian,” he intones, hilariously, into a microphone), and arguing about “Staaah Trek” with his pals. And every Manchester scene gives you a sense of the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, where it’s bitter cold but nobody makes too much of it, where the past stays with you whether you want it to or not.
This is a movie that pays careful attention to details: Note how Randi’s new husband barely gets a word of dialogue but quickly registers as a very different kind of man from Lee (a fact Lee silently notes, in disappointed wonder); or how the home of Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol), who’s something of a lost soul, has a tidiness so painful it seems to make the air tighter. And watch how, through Affleck’s haunting performance, the cipher that is Lee slowly begins to make sense: how the laughing goofball of the flashback scenes becomes a walking shadow, wanting to reach out to Patrick, but unable to take that step.
Not everything broken, this wise movie reminds us, can be mended.
Manchester by the Sea
Rated: R for language throughout and some sexual content. Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler. Director: Kenneth Lonergan. Running time: 137 minutes. Theater: Edwards 21, Edwards 12, Flicks, Majestic 18.