As we first meet Boston apartment complex handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) in Manchester by the Sea, the latest from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, Lee is rolling his eyes while a tenant debates whether to replace a stopper or install a new toilet. Then Lee curses out another resident and refuses his boss's order to apologize, before wrapping up the day with a drunken bar brawl.
Lee's churlish malaise is interrupted by news of the unexpected death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee reluctantly rushes back home to the titular seaside location to handle Joe's affairs and learns he's been designated guardian of Joe's obstreperous teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The sidelong glances and halting salutations that Lee is met with upon returning hint at a transformative trauma that he long ago sought to escape, but which still lingers in the community's consciousness.
Still, Manchester By the Sea is about much more than great loss. It's awash in the quotidian interruptions of everyday life, from profound to mundane to farcical, and the jarring juxtapositions between them. A bad cell phone connection interrupts Lee's search for Patrick to inform him of his father's death. A trip to the mortician to plan Joe's funeral turns into a hunt for a forgotten parking spot. It's hard as heck for anyone to say "Minnetonka, Minnesota."
The town's milieu feels lived in; it mirrors the contrasts inherent in its denizens: convivial but cold, quaint yet insular. In a brilliantly restrained performance, Affleck portrays a man mired in silent self-flagellation, methodically gauging every waking moment to repel life's pleasures. On four conspicuous occasions, he rebuffs the advances of women—a tenant, a barfly, a single mom, an ex-wife (the terrific Michelle Williams)—not out of disinterest, but as an emotional reflex against the pain love has brought him.
Patrick, on the other hand, juggles girlfriends to compensate for the void left by his estrangement from his mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), and his father's death. Notwithstanding the flashbacks Lonergan weaves into the present-day plotline, too little is revealed about Joe and his relationships, particularly with his son. Joe essentially serves to forge a volatile kinship between Lee and Patrick, each the victim of familial loss. Lee reviles Elise, whose alcoholism wrecked her marriage and who now compensates with a Christian piety foisted on her by her new husband (Matthew Broderick). They, too, share the unspoken bond of scarred souls battling internal demons.
Tomaso Albinoni's longing Adagio in G Minor accompanies the film's most revealing, wrenching sequence, which Lonergan interjects with the comically subversive spectacle of paramedics wrestling to load a gurney into an ambulance. It would be a routine worthy of the Marx Brothers were the gurney not carrying a delirious mother who has just suffered an unimaginable tragedy. Life is hopeful, maddening, awful, and absurd, sometimes all at once. As in Manchester by the Sea's penultimate scene, it's like a game of catch with a rubber ball—you don't know which direction it will bounce next.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Auteur Season."