I knew I was going to like Manchester by the Sea after the triumph of an early scene. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) rushes from Quincy to a hospital in Manchester too late to say goodbye to his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), dead of a cardiac arrest due to congestive heart failure. In the waiting area Joe’s partner collapses in tears. “Would you like a Kleenex?” the nurse asks. “I’m sorry,” the partner blubbers. “Oh, please,” she says too quickly, with a hint of sourness. I knew Manchester by the Sea was going to be a wonderful movie when a flashback reveals the source of Lee’s penchant for bar fights and losing his patience with tenants of the buildings for which he’s janitor. It would probably qualify as a spoiler to mention it. Suffice to say that its placement — without making a melodramatic point — almost an hour into its running time is a promise fulfilled: the film has confidence in its audience’s willingness to absorb horrors.
Six years after the limbo into which the lumpen and often great Margaret was condemned, Kenneth Lonergan returns with one of 2016’s best pictures. Manchester by the Sea is a rarity: an ebullient film about misery. Lonergan, one of Hollywood’s most prized script doctors and for whom grief is a muse, puts everything he has learned about building scenes since 2000’s You Can Count on Me. Minute to minute I didn’t know what the characters are going to do. Even when it threatens to turn into What What’s Happening to Casey Affleck Now> the film is the closest American example to date of what Mike Leigh achieves every couple of years in England: lived-in pictures with people acting in contradictory, infuriating ways, like the rest of us.
The immediate problem facing Lee is observing the terms of Joe’s will. Appointed the guardian of nephew Patrick, Lee wants him to pull up stakes and move to Quincy, a chilling prospect to Patrick. He’s a popular high school senior with a band and, to Lee’s fascination, a couple of girlfriends, with only one of whom is he sexually active, he assures his uncle (“Strictly basement business”). As played by Lucas Hedges, Patrick is casual, almost complacent about his good fortune; for Lee, like for many teens mourning is an obstacle, an inconvenience. His father’s death means changing a life that’s been so far good to him. Sometimes he plays for small stakes, like the insistence on keeping his father’s decrepit fishing boat. Although he’s reestablished ties over emails with the alcoholic mother whom Joe divorced, he’s more excited about being the reconciler than in the actual reconciliation, shown in a tense, brittle lunch scene in which Elise (Gretchen Mol) pretend they’re cool when it’s obvious that new husband Rodney (Matthew Broderick), a Christian too aware of what sobriety has cost him and Elise, thinks it’s not.
In every good drama the ghost of Jean Renoir flickers, a link to a cinema reminding audiences of what we already know: the truly terrible thing in life is that everybody has their reasons. Attuned to the decidedly un-tragic thoughts of its fully realized human beings, Manchester by the Sea shows men and women making do, muddling through. Boasting a silken Alan Arkin-esque timbre, Affleck has been a weird, ropey presence onscreen; he was compelling in Gerry and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but gave the impression that he’s watching himself act while fixing a turkey sandwich. Further, pressure cooker performances like Affleck’s as Lee often register as exercises in restraint and not much else (Mark Wahlberg has given a couple of these in James Gray’s early films set in a working class milieu, and Joel Egerton in the recent Loving verges on the necrotic). Lonergan, however, writes Lee not as a stolid man who thanks to a dead brother and wily nephew Learns to Love Again but a seething guy of corrosive temperament who loves and has loved. Affleck is the perfect actor to deliver lines like the following, on Lee describing the condition of Joel’s corpse to Patrick: “He looks like he’s dead. He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping or anything. He doesn’t look gross, either.” In a small role as Lee’s estranged wife, Michelle Williams is a scythe, cutting through conventional notions of grief and that dreadful word “closure.”
To single them out strikes me as ungenerous. From the old tenant on the phone bemoaning a niece’s Bat Mitzvah (“I could slit my throat”) while in the background Lee inspects fixtures and Hedges’ unfussy depiction of normality to Ruibo Qian as the doctor who in flashback explains to Joe’s terrifying family how heart conditions work, the cast operates at an unimpeachable level. Lonergan no longer directs like a writer who has to direct. The whiteness of winter in Manchester, its church towers, and the clapboards of insurance agencies, isn’t used symbolically; it’s the scenery and topography of which Lee and the others form a part. Lonergan has a mind of winter, able, in Wallace Stevens’ words, not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. When Manchester by the Sea ended, I wanted a sequel.