A pall, an impenetrable haze of dejection, suffuses both Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester-by-the-Sea and its main character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Boston-based apartment superintendent called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea (about 30 minutes north of Boston) for the death of his brother. Set in the dead of winter, Lee’s trip is extended because the brother (Joe, played by Kyle Chandler) has a son (Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges) who needs temporary looking after and because the more-snow-stricken-than-snow-blanketed New England soil isn’t soft enough for a grave until Spring. Lee is a quiet, sensitive soul, but we quickly learn his attitude and personality are the casualties of his displaced worldview and clinical depression stemming from an initially unspoken past tragedy involving his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).
Certainly, Lonergan’s film is a portrait of this most-troubled man, Lee, but it casts a wider net as a study in collective mourning and the difficulties of interpersonal communication in a small town only exacerbated by tragedies both past and present. Every gaze and line is an excursion into abjection written in an alphabet of unmitigated despair mowed down by the most chilling variant of comedy known to humanity. Although despairingly funny, Manchester is not restorative or pacifying by any means, with Lonergan displaying a world-weary eye for agitating the path of least resistance by introducing little, piercing moments where the world just conspires to cut down redemption. The most overt of which is a demonic little spark where a stretcher just refuses to fit into an ambulance, a minute particle of worldly disruption that complicates Lonergan’s viewpoint by suggesting that the world can’t quite stop and wait for us to wallow in our chosen crises, even as doing exactly that is the very essence of being human and having humanity in the first place.
By this point, the debate over whether Affleck or Denzel Washington (for Fences) deserved the Oscar for Best Actor clouds the film, having been waged recklessly and, frankly, with very little concern for the actual performances or their respective styles. Rather than choosing (although I admit to preferring Affleck despite Washington’s titanic performance), the most startling note to me is how antithetical the two performers are. They’re men in similar situations: lost in perpetual drift, incapable of connection in a human world, wracked by introspection that vacillates between precipitously self-destructive and definitively on-point and perceptive. But they are entirely different men.
Washington’s figure is an iconographic character, a boozy, jazz-inflected storyteller of impenetrable depths, ferocious highs, and frightening lows, a guy whose vitality and vivacity belie layers that are signaled by his continued vacillation, his essential refusal to settle into one mode. It’s as though his personality shucks and jives are both taunts to society and an act of dancing around death itself. His mad ravings and continual baseball switch-ups reflect a man perennially afraid of stagnancy, of dying down, of giving in to the light. His expressive charisma images a savage screen-warping titan of a man. He devours on-comers and jumps to the side of our expectations as though afraid of whatever stillness and stereotyping might bring for him. His mantra, spoken in many more words and despite knowing the opposite is true, is “you can’t pin me down”.
If Washington punches from the gut, Affleck’s stomach is perpetually in knots. He is a man in stasis, torn apart from a world that has alternately tried to re-accept him and shunned him entirely. But his real enemy is his personal guilt, his sense of futile existence and his stubborn and understandable inability to escape from the lesions of his past. He is a painfully silent man, an abomination of human introspection where reflection becomes zombie-like stasis. Washington’s performance is far more external, that of a tormented and trapped man who externalizes his grief unthinkingly through monologues and verbose treatises on the nature of existence, history, and the soul. He’s trying to bat his way out of the paper bag of life. Affleck is tasked with perhaps the less enviable role of a person whose failures of expression and his inarticulateness are the pathways into his guarded soul, a man who bottles up everything and cozies up into a paper bag that is increasingly suffocating him.
It’s an extraordinary performance, and I’m in opposition to the assumption that this kind of realism and affectless naturalism is inherently the best mode of performance, the perennial “make it real” school that is a hopelessly freshman understanding of the wide berth of possibilities and potentialities film can signal for an audience. Realism is a constructed style like another other, and that’s well and good as long as it doesn’t colonize our understanding of how overt artifice and explicit stylization tell truths of their own. But Affleck’s Lee is an astonishing portrayal of a cauterized man, too transfixingly empty to deny. The apartment handyman role is a mimetic for his pressurized existence: he fixes other people’s daily problems without ever emphasizing his own or the wider, more soul-deep conflicts of identity and mental anguish that encircle us all. But Lee’s job is only his entryway for the film’s more penetrating concern with the way people focus on minutiae as a way of waylaying the larger existential turmoil clouding their lives.
With Jody Lee Lipes’ evocatively dearth-ridden and snow-caked cinematography clouding the skies around the film, Manchester becomes a poem of error and the very cloudiness of life, a confused work about confusion. It’s the work of a true artist rather than just a story-spinner, a film that intentionally doesn’t add up to anything and refuses to build toward climax or meaning. Rather, it staggers about in fits and starts, a paradoxical work where everything is simultaneously statically inevitable and predetermined and yet always slipping away from us with sideways movement and digression. The apex is a brutally fragmentary conversation between Affleck and Williams that signals not through statement but obstruction and absence, through the inability to express. It’s a circus of interruptions, every new scene disturbing the central tragedy while also deepening it, as though the film is being torn apart at its very core. It’s filled with contradictions, such as how comedy becomes simultaneously an essential spirit of daily life and a rogue element, an invasive force the interrupts life. Through it all, small doses of pointed artifice also confuse the naturalism of the film while implying how people resort to performative, preplanned routines to hide themselves from experience. It’s a film entirely free of decorum, an enchanting work of disenchantment.