Toward the end of Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificently messy, painfully real “Manchester by the Sea,” Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler stands at the gravesite of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), looking at a stone with three names engraved on it: their mother’s, their father’s, and Joe’s. In the lower right-hand corner, there’s an open space, yet to be filled. Maybe the spot will go to their absent brother, who’s recently moved from Massachusetts to Minnesota. Maybe it belongs to Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose own future and legacy is largely what “Manchester by the Sea” is about. Or maybe it’s supposed to go to Lee… the Chandler that nobody likes.
Lonergan’s an award-winning playwright, but has had a complicated history as a filmmaker. His first movie, 2000’s “You Can Count on Me,” was a modest, perfect gem, which won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance on its way to an Oscar nomination; an arthouse success. He followed that up with “Margaret,” a narratively complex, frequently bravura slice-of-life that had a hard time finding its way out of the editing bay, but won a small-but-fanatical following once Lonergan and his producers settled their legal and aesthetic disputes. “Manchester by the Sea” sort of splits the difference between those two films. It has a loose, sprawling structure, following Lee as he spends several months in his his old hometown to settle Joe’s affairs. But it also has a strong central relationship, which deepens and grows over the course of the 135-minute running time. “Manchester by the Sea” is the kind of movie that doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere in particular for long stretches. And then, almost unexpectedly, it arrives.
The story primarily concerns Lee and Patrick, and whether they can move forward in the same direction after losing Joe. The film opens with Lee living in a cruddy apartment in the Boston suburb of Quincy, where he works as a handyman and spends his spare time getting drunk and picking fights. Then he gets the call that Joe’s congenital heart disease has finally felled him — something that’d been imminent for years — and when he arrives in Manchester, he learns that he’s been named Patrick’s guardian. While Lee wants to do right by his family, he has no interest in moving back to a town that holds a lot of painful memories. And Patrick doesn’t want to leave a place where he’s a high school hunk, with multiple girlfriends and a prime positions on both the hockey team and in a local garage band.
For roughly the first hour of “Manchester by the Sea,” Lonergan only hints at why Lee’s so reluctant to come home. The film includes frequent flashbacks to happier times, when Lee was married to a hilariously foul-mouthed woman named Randi (Michele Williams), and living in a nice house with their three kids. Gradually though, Lonergan shows how everything went wrong: how Joe split from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) and became a single dad, and how Lee had one very bad night that cost him everything.
Backstory-withholding is an overused trick in indie dramas, but Lonergan doesn’t do it here to play coy, or to hook the audience on a mystery. If anything, the delayed reveal is a risky maneuver, because Lee’s too reticent and surly at the start of “Manchester by the Sea” to be all that engaging, and the situation he’s in — handling funeral arrangements and estate-planning — isn’t exactly the stuff of gripping drama. Once everything’s on the table though, Lee becomes, if not wholly sympathetic, then at least more fascinating.
Also, while a lot of indies parcel out the hidden backstory via third-act monologues, “Manchester by the Sea” stages complete little vignettes, which don’t just tell what happened but also fill in the larger context of the Chandlers’ world. One of the things that sets Lonergan apart from other dramatists is that he’s preoccupied by details that often get missed in stories like this. For example, rather than just having Lee and Patrick argue about the move to Boston while walking down a street, Lonergan has them shiver through the bitter cold and forget where they parked their car — two factors that both extend the conversation and make it more tense. The movie is filled with little bits of behavior, dialogue, and set-design that give everything a more lived-in feel.
At times, “Manchester by the Sea” is shaggy to a fault. There’s probably a good half-hour’s worth of scenes that are arguably superfluous, neither advancing the story nor delivering pertinent information. As was the case with “Margaret,” Lonergan sometimes seems to have trouble cutting out material that’s well-written and well-acted, but inessential. But also, as with “Margaret,” odds are that no two viewers would agree on what should go, because so many of those “pointless” scenes are also among the most poignant, or the funniest.
Give a lot of credit to Affleck, who’s on screen about 90% of the time. The actor has a difficult job in this film, playing someone who was once warm, charming, and full of life, but who now greets every new person or opportunity with a “whaddaya want from me” glare. A conventional drama would be about how Lee’s heart thaws as he becomes Patrick’s parent. Lonergan doesn’t give Affleck any of those kind of epiphanies, even though he surrounds him with characters who’d like nothing more than for him to open up and to let go of his past. Instead, Affleck maximizes the micro-moments, when the old Lee bubbles up to the surface for a minute or two.
The same could be said of the movie as a whole, which keeps piling up scenes that don’t seem to point toward any particular endpoint — which only makes the few emotional swells all the more overpowering. “You Can Count on Me” memorably ended with a simple scene on a park bench, where a brother and sister say goodbye and struggle to fit everything they need to express to each other into a few minutes and a few lines. The last 20 minutes of “Manchester by the Sea” is like one “You Can Count on Me” park bench scene after another — each more tear-jerking than the last.
Lonergan doesn’t push those beats too hard. But as his characters — and his viewers — begin to have some sense that the end is approaching, the movie’s seeming aimlessness becomes more fraught with meaning. By the time the film ends, we know so much about these people and their town that they don’t even need to articulate their feelings for us to understand them. If anything, as with that blank spot on the Chandler headstone, it’s what’s not said that says so much. [A-]