A lot goes unsaid in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, the award-winning 2016 film from writer and director Kenneth Lonergran. Named for the historic Massachusetts town in which it takes place, Lonergran’s laser-focused character study is less about the place than it is about the people who inhabit it. Yet there’s such a intrinsic association between the reserved kind of male ‘Masshole’ persona that it’s difficult to separate the two, especially in a film that presents it so matter-of-factly.
The taciturn janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) seems to have a penchant for pushing others away, ever ready to start a fight or turning down the affectations of flirtatious women. After finding out his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack, he’s even more surprised to discover that he is now the guardian of Joe’s Patrick, (Lucas Hedges). As both men come to terms with their feelings, the presence of Lee’s estranged ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) reveals secrets from the past.
Everything about MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is something of an ordeal, but rather than wallow in the depths of white masculine angst, Lonergran embraces the immediacy of men simply not dealing with their emotions. Playing with the linearity of the narrative, Lonergran lets us form opinions of Lee and Randi in particular, indicating something lurks beneath the surface. Finally, a flashback to a tragic moment reveals what has been hinted at all along, and two devastating moments in front of Lee’s former house and in a police station will radically change your view of both Lee and Affleck.
Lonergran sure takes his time between these moments, but the magnitude of Joe’s final wish is only felt in retrospect. Williams is an emotional powerhouse in the final act, engaging in one of the film’s most authentic moments despite the layers of anticipation surrounding it. It’s very easy to get lost in the bleakness of it all though, but that’s also the same journey the people Lonergran asks us to spend some time with.