Kenneth Lonergan’s heartbreaking “Manchester By the Sea” debuted to stellar reviews earlier this year at Sundance, and the Casey Affleck-starrer has so far managed to keep up the momentum as we roll into awards season. The film — inspired by an early idea from Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who are both credited as producers on the feature — is a tragedy told in a way that only Lonergan could truly master.
On the surface, it’s a film about a loner (Affleck) who is forced to return to his small hometown to care for his nephew (breakout Lucas Hedges) after his father (Kyle Chander) passes away. Yet there are many other stories to tell within “Manchester By the Sea,” including the story that explains why Affleck’s Lee Chandler is so distant and removed from, well, just about everything in his life. It’s a story that steadily unfolds throughout the film, revealed via clever and emotional flashback sequences that feel much more like memories than they do narrative or timeline tricks, and it’s also the story that adds still more dramatic heft to a film that’s already bursting with it.
At a luncheon held in the film’s honor today at Manhattan’s Bistro Milano, Affleck and Lonergan participated in a half-hour chat moderated by film journalist Dave Karger that focused on some of the feature’s most devastating scenes, including one that features Affleck and co-star Michelle Williams discussing the wrenching events that forced Lee to leave his hometown years earlier.
Some spoilers ahead.
In the film, viewers slowly discover that Lee was previously married to Williams’ Randi, and the particulars of their breakup are meted out over the course of numerous flashbacks (which, no, will not be further detailed here). The pair do eventually meet in the film’s current timeline, including a scene that sees the duo unexpectedly running into each other on the street.
Many viewers of the film point to that scene as the most heartbreaking one of all, with both Affleck and Williams digging deep into tough material and serving up some of their best performances as a result. When Affleck was asked about the particular scene and whether its conversation was in any way improvised, the actor provided some insight into not just what makes that scene work, but Lonergan’s film as a whole.
“It was not improvised, it was scripted,” Affleck explained. “I think that Kenny writes in a way that feels very real, conversational, even in very charged moments.”
And while Affleck admires the improvisational side of acting, he believes that Lonergan’s style of scripting poses its own special challenges. “It can also be just as hard to get it just right, because when it’s perfect there on the page, you really want to get it right,” the actor said. “Kenny writes with real precision.”
For Affleck and the film’s audience, part of that precision lies in Lonergan’s ability to write conversations that feel real and believable — complete with overlapping sentences and incomplete thoughts — that only add to the veracity that permeates the scene.
“One of the things that I love about it is that it sounds so much like people trying to figure out how to say something, not always doing it, and sometimes doing it enough that the audience understands or the reader understands what you’re trying to say,” Affleck added. “You can relate to that.”
The scene — and the conversation at its heart — also don’t offer any easy answers or neat tie-ups, just like the film itself. “She doesn’t make a big speech about forgiving me and I make a big speech about how I want to be forgiven, then we move on,” Affleck said.
That’s just not the film’s style (or Lonergan’s), and it’s all the better for it.
“Manchester By the Sea” is currently in limited release, with further expansion in the coming weeks.