The grief-wrought drama Manchester by the Sea is a broadside for cinema in the on-going debate over the engrossing pleasures of long-form television supposedly exclusive to that medium. An emotionally flush, simmering melodrama of sorrow surrounding a death in small Massachusetts family that echoes and underlines older trauma, Manchester by the Sea is director Kenneth Lonergan’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his tremendous epic of post 9/11 New York emotions, Margaret, whose release was sabotaged by its distributor, spawning a fervent cult of admirers who keep discovering its considerable riches.
Less long and less sprawling, and focusing on a male melodrama whose plot points are nothing if not obvious, Manchester by the Sea is not so much a story as it is a sensitive immersion into the dynamics of the Chandler family after the early death by heart failure of eldest brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) in the eponymous small Massachusetts town. Joe's death necessitates that his younger brother, Lee (a fantastic Casey Affleck, our best go-to for haunted working class New Englander), take leave of his life as a solitary drinker and building supervisor in Boston and care after not just the funeral, but also seeing to his teenage nephew, Phillip (Lucas Hedges). Lee’s monotone lack of affect and propensity, even before his brother’s death, to get blind drunk and start fights points to suffering that predates Joe's sudden death. Indeed, as we follow him trying to care for his nephew and his brother’s body the film feathers in flashbacks to build out his past with a wife (Michelle Williams) and kids, a mistake and a tragedy that drove Lee out of town and sunk him into despair.
The story, founded in cliché, is about Lee coming to terms with his past through coping with this new sadness. His nephew—who is less grief stricken, in fact socially frolicking, juggling a band, two girl friends, hockey practice, and school—needs less help than he assumes, so Lee's recovery is above all about figuring out how take responsibility outside of himself. It is to be expected. But what is surprising and is the film’s greatness is its lack of urgency to pursue this theme. We spend time with Lee, driving back and forth in Manchester ferrying Phillip from place to place, and we get a feeling for the town and its winter light. The flashbacks, a potentially obvious structure (as Lee processes grief in the present we learn concurrently from the past how he ended up a shell of a man), are sometimes placed elegantly, sometimes with the awkwardness that made Margaret’s large canvas endearingly frayed. This coarseness sometimes gets the better of the film, and particularly inexcusable is an overwrought shellacking of Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor over the revelation of Lee’s grievous trauma.
Besides this egregious sequence, Manchester by the Sea wisely does not feature many “big moments,” for Lee is too withdrawn to produce them, and Patrick too wry and charmingly sarcastic despite his mild sadness. Jody Lee Lipes’s lighting is serious but never showy, and Lonergan’s direction unhurried, attentive, and surprisingly varied in tone from scene to scene despite the fact that the film certainly abuts both the limits of its tried-and-true story as well as the frustratingly unalterable introversion of Lee's character. But since the purpose is not to draw an epiphany from either, but rather to take our time and sink into the enjoyment of watching well-written characters played by great actors in a story that gives them room to define corners of telling behavior, hints of comedy, brushes of new emotions, and bits and pieces of discovery of the small town atmosphere, Manchester by the Sea indeed attains that great feeling of “sinking into” something.