My grief lies all within,
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul
LEE CHANDLER (CASEY Affleck) is a reliable, hardworking man – a handyman in an apartment complex- and, it seems, an ‘object’ of desire to a variety of various women. But he’s sullen, withdrawn and averse to any sort of real human contact. From time to time, for no apparent reason, he lashes out…knocking down strangers and picking fights here and there. This is Shakespeare’s “tortured soul”; a man so broken by heartbreak, so battered into incoherent silence that his grief walls him off from all humanity.
And, into his fractured life comes the news of his (divorced) brother’s death and the sudden shocking responsibility of having to care for his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). To a man who can barely care for himself, this legal burden offers no manna to nourish his ailing heart. It’s just a burden.
Told partly through a series of well-timed flashbacks, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me” as director and “Gangs of New York” as writer) drips the backstory into his tale with the precision of a murder mystery. Along with the stunning acting of Casey Affleck, we become more and more immersed in, and understanding of, the nature of the grief that has so reframed the life of this once ‘ordinary’, well-adjusted man.
This is grief at its most raw; a grief beyond tears or even the ability to express itself.
Lee tries the best he can to work at and shape his new relationship with his nephew, Patrick, having been forced to morph from joshing irresponsible older brother to responsible father figure. It’s an impossible ask. And Patrick, having just lost a father, is himself fighting his way through his own sadness. The two circle each other like the wounded animals they are. Neither of them can find the outlet of tears; and the inarticulate silence of their suffering means that their griefs can never be exorcised.
At least Patrick is young, and in direct contrast to the monkish abstinence of his uncle, he can still lose himself to the healing joys of hurried, secret sex. Perhaps for him, time and life will lift him away from his pain.
But for Lee, the pain is like locked in syndrome.
In the usual Hollywood movie of this ‘type’, there’d be some sort of neat resolution, the moment of catharsis when the glimmer of light would beckon over the horizon. Not so here. Director Lonergan slyly offers us all the typical tropes of movie redemption, from the need to care for someone else to the possibility of romance or even reunion with an ex wife (Michelle Williams), who tells him that she’s still in love with him. But he seems to be saying that this is a grief beyond recovery. There is no out. There is no escape. Not for Lee. Not for us.
The glorious soothing sea of the title is little more than a sea of despair that stretches from shore to shore.
Lonergan is such an honest writer and director that even his score (composed by Leslie Barber) eschews the usual heart-tugging swell of strings. He inserts instead fragments of classical themes, snatches of melody, snippets of song. It’s a score that seeks to parallel the emotional arc of the tale, not guss it up to pull the audience’s own heart strings.
Casey is outstanding. It’s a hard role to carry: he cannot cry, can barely speak and is mainly a jerk. But the almost palpable agony he manages to convey keeps the audience on his side. Near the end, there’s a powerful moment when he encounters his estranged wife (Williams’s small role is perfectly crafted). She is all snotty, crying, almost helpless agony…reaching out to him for her own redemption and forgiveness. He is all stoic, unyielding (superficial) cold-heartedness. Here is a couple who may once have meant so much to each other but who are now so damaged, there can be no route back to grace.
Like Lee’s brother (Kyle Chandler, the aggrieved husband from “Carol”), given a few years to live due to a damaged heart, these two have already died due to the damages in theirs.
So it goes, the story suggests, so it goes; you can’t, as the song pleads, “unbreak my heart”. If only.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. With: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges. Director/writer: Kenneth Lonergan. Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes. Composer: Lesley Barber