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Stumbling Toward Grace

Kenneth Lonergan's masterful new film, Manchester by the Sea, grapples with the wages of grief
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea

There came a moment early in Kenneth Lonergan’s new film when I knew I was in trouble, emotionally speaking: Led by the doctor into a viewing of his brother’s corpse on the hospital table, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) stands stiffly at the threshold of the room, incapable of approaching, his body coiled, his hands flexing and fidgeting before he slides them uncertainly into the pockets of his jeans.

The excruciating authenticity of this scene — a baffling tumult of inner rage and inconsolable grief played out as a physical twitch of self-conscious posturing — is what Manchester by the Sea is all about. The film tackles tragedy on the grandest scale imaginable, and yet it distills that tragedy into a quintessence of dust, sprinkling it like grit into the crevices of everyday life, where it hides away in the furrow of a brow, a closed mouth, a tear unshed.

As the monkish and miserable Lee, Affleck is a revelation — his performance is a study in the profundity of exquisite restraint. A lonely janitor working in a small town in Massachusetts, Lee is a vision of repressed hurt, a sad man whose pinched-lip courtesies regularly erupt in bitter confrontations or drunken barroom brawls. Lee’s shell of solitude is forever cracked open when, upon the sudden death of his brother Joe (the always fantastic Kyle Chandler), he becomes the unwilling guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Lonergan expertly propels Manchester along parallel narrative lines. In present time, we watch the days after Joe’s death unfold, as Lee, Patrick and others — including Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) — struggle to negotiate their mundane obligations in the face of inconceivable loss, with results that are gut-wrenchingly sad and absurdly hilarious. In alternating flashbacks we get a glimpse into Lee’s buried past, a story that moves with patient and tender longing until the terrible event that now holds him hostage explodes.

Since his screenwriting breakthrough with You Can Count on Me (2000), Lonergan has proven himself one of our most literate and humane writers — a masterful observer of quiet details, and a gentle but unflinching archaeologist of the human heart in all its wounded, embattled goodness. As an American filmmaker, he is unrivaled in his readiness and his ability to tackle big subjects (life, death, grace, forgiveness) at the level of life as it is really lived, and in this he recalls the great European masters of domestic tragedy: authors like Chekov and Dostoyevsky, and directors like Bergman and Tarkovsky.

With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has achieved the finest and most complete expression yet of his artistry, or more appropriately, his vision — a vision that is organic, sophisticated and distinctly American, and which finds its voice in the staticky crackle of relationships put to the ultimate test of endurance. How do we deal with death? How do we confront our responsibilities in the face of paralyzing doubt? Our eternal unpreparedness is Lonergan’s real subject, in all its slouching and sloppy tragicomedy, and it is this — his focus on the real state of the human soul — that makes his pursuits spiritual, in the deepest sense of the term.

The existential questions at the heart of this film are universal and unavoidable and yet immediately personal, in that we all face them eventually, whether we’re ready for them or not. This is, after all, the only real province of art, a truth rarely grasped by Hollywood these days. With sly humor and disarming candor, Lonergan — who has assembled a dream cast working at the apex of its talent (Williams has never been so stunning) — offers us a glimpse of unreconstructed grief with no easy resolution. But he does so in such a way — the movie is disarmingly funny — that the effect is exhilarating.

This is one of the lightest heavy films you will ever see, or visa versa. Either way, it’s not to be missed. (Broadway Metro)