In “Manchester by the Sea,” a death in the family forces a solitary man to let the world back into his life — at least for a while. Lee (Casey Affleck) works as a handyman in Boston, unclogging people’s toilets, fixing leaks and shoveling snow from walkways. He’s quiet, mostly polite and keeps to himself inside his drab basement apartment. When a woman at a bar flirts with him, he doesn’t reciprocate; you can almost see him recoil from having to interact with another human being outside of work.
Lee’s daily routine seems lonely and more than a little sad, but it suits him just fine: He has chosen this. Then Lee gets a phone call from home. His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a heart attack. By the time Lee makes the 90-minute drive down to his hometown of Manchester and gets to the hospital, Joe has passed away. The doctors express their awkward condolences.
Lee must now begin the process of settling his brother’s affairs — including what to do with his 15-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee won’t get any help from his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), or Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol): They are both estranged from the family for reasons writer-director Kenneth Lonergan reveals gradually, through flashbacks that show Lee used to be a happy man; a loving husband, father and member of Manchester’s fishing-industry community.
What could have turned Lee into such an inexpressive, detached loner? The answer, which is revealed halfway through the movie in a bravura bit of filmmaking, is worse than anything you might imagine: It’s unthinkable. But Lonergan is less interested in tragedy than in how we cope with it. Some of us figure out a way to mourn, forgive and move on, learning how to bear the extra weight of a heavy heart. Others never recover.
“Manchester by the Sea” is the third movie from Lonergan about the aftermath of a sudden death (his first two were “You Can Count On Me” and “Margaret”). But this is also his funniest, nimblest picture. There are long stretches in it that could pass for a comedy. Affleck’s performance as Lee, a clenched fist of a man, has been rightly celebrated for giving depth to a character who could have come off as a cypher: Affleck lets you see the wheels spinning inside Lee’s head, even when his face is stony and blank.
Hedges is equally good as the teenage Patrick, who is juggling two girlfriends, takes pleasure in busting his uncle’s chops and has a delayed reaction to the loss of his father (the death was not entirely unexpected, since Joe suffered from congenital heart failure).
In one scene, Patrick needles Lee about having to wait until spring to give his Dad a proper burial, because the ground is frozen solid in winter. Lonergan lets the tone in the conversation veer from humorous to poignant to funny again. You watch the sequence enraptured, because it reminds you of how real life never plays out in one single, neat, sustained tone, and how many movies do you see these days that bear even a passing resemblance to reality?
At other moments, “Manchester by the Sea” makes you gasp at the enormity of the emotions these characters are feeling — Williams has at least two tremendous moments — but Lonergan never resorts to manipulation or contrivance. Only one scene sputters: The casting of Matthew Broderick in a small role is an unnecessary distraction. But he’s not on the screen long enough to break the movie’s spell.
“Manchester by the Sea” is the latest installment in a body of work from an artist fascinated by how life marches on, with or without us, and how we scramble to keep up. Not everyone can, though. Some wounds, even time can’t heal.
Manchester by the Sea
☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick.
Writer-director: Kenneth Lonergan.
Running time: 2:17.
Rated: R, for vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes.