Manchester by the Sea

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck star in "Manchester by the Sea."

His phone rings while he’s shoveling the walk. It’s a call from his hometown, bearing the worst news imaginable. He hangs up, carefully gathers up his shovel and goes inside.

To the viewer, he seems a little too ready for the bad news. As if he’s already been grieving.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s drama “Manchester by the Sea” slowly digs into this closed-off person, trying to find out what has damaged him so badly. The film is deeply sad at times, but leavened with dry humor and the fragile hope that some people can suffer tragedy and survive. Life goes on, even when you think it shouldn’t.

The man is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), living a quiet, almost monastic life as the custodian of an apartment building in Boston. His only form of human connection is when his fist connects with a stranger’s nose in a bar fight that he starts. Clearly, something is not right with him. In a magnificent performance, Affleck plays him as clenched and locked down, as if living in the world causes him physical pain. 

He’s called home to the seaside town of Manchester-by-the-Sea by the news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died. It isn’t totally out of the blue — Joe had heart disease. But you can see how his brother’s death causes Lee’s tight grip on himself to start to loosen.

As Lee re-enters a hometown he left behind years before, some townspeople are supportive and caring. But others whisper behind his back about “THE Lee Chandler,” and we sense there’s a terrible thing the movie is keeping from us, the white-hot source of Lee’s pain.

Lonergan masterfully threads flashback scenes into the narrative, mostly good memories of Lee going out on the boat with his brother and young nephew Patrick, or hanging out with his then-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

There’s a clear line separating these happier flashbacks from the present day scenes. But when Lee finally allows himself to think about the tragedy that drove him from Manchester, that changes. The movie flips back and forth between past and present, dialogue from one bleeding into the other. It’s as if Lee’s awful guilt is escaping from the box he hid it in, overwhelming him.

Keeping Lee tethered to earth is Patrick (Luke Hedges), now a teenager juggling two girlfriends, hockey and band practice, with some anxiety issues. Patrick is annoying in that way only teenagers can be, and his needling both gets under Lee’s skin and brings him back to life in some way. It also leads to some of the funniest dialogue, welcome in such an often painful film.

In a traditional movie, looking after Patrick would give Lee the opportunity he needs to start healing and find some measure of peace. But Lonergan, who is now three for three as a filmmaker after the masterpieces “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” isn’t interested in making a traditional movie. The emotions on screen are raw and complex, and unpredictable in their effects.

This is illustrated in an extraordinary scene late in the film where Lee and Randi run into each other on the street. In a burst of candor, she tries to make him reckon with their shared pasts, and offers forgiveness. He resists. There’s no big speech or quotable lines, just the authentic words of two people fumbling around an honesty that may be too painful to touch.

Like so much of “Manchester by the Sea,” the realness of that scene makes it both hard to watch and impossible not to.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.