“It’s not a good disease.” Diagnosed with cancer at the start of Manchester by the Sea, Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) asks his doctor if there are any good diseases. “Poison ivy,” she replies, with the barest hint of a grin. At that, Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), furious that they’re joking at a time like this, storms out of the hospital room.
Elise might be best advised not to watch Manchester by the Sea, a nearly perfect example of how to weave humor throughout tragedy. Carefully observant of how individuals get through all those days and nights that just keep coming during misfortune, the film reminds us that life doesn’t just stop because something terrible happens.
That’s the situation where Joe’s brother Kyle (Casey Affleck) finds himself. After a flashback to a scene where the two brothers are on a fishing boat, Kyle goofing around with Joe’s son Patrick (Ben O’Brien), we cut to the present day. Kyle is a maintenance man at an apartment complex in Boston, far from the scenic town of the film’s title. A drily comic montage shows Kyle’s flat silence when facing the complaints of the residents (or overhearing one confessing to an erotic fantasy about “her handyman”), as well as his short fuse.
This walking dead man isn’t the Kyle we first saw. Something has changed for him in the intervening time. Like Lonergan’s last film, the razor-edged masterpiece Margaret, this one is strewn more with emotional landmines than hints of the story to come. Here, we don’t see what’s happened to Kyle before he hears of Joe’s death. With no more visible emotion than a slightly greater heaviness to his movements, Kyle drives home for the funeral. Once there, he finds himself named in Joe’s will as the guardian of Patrick, now a rangy teenager played by Lucas Hedges.
At this point, Manchester by the Sea moves into slightly more familiar dramatic territory, in which the prodigal son returns to his home town after a death. For a time, it follows the usual stages of the funeral film, as Kyle reconnects with the places and people of his slightly younger and happier self. But there’s a dark cast to everything, from people whispering, “That’s him” as he passes, to the deep well of suffering Kyle sees in the eyes of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), hints of a terrible past event likely to be revealed.
Instead of predictably uncovering the crucial secret in one climactic scene, Lonergan builds to it in a series of slowly building flashbacks. Once the moment comes, it hits with all the force of a blow to the head, leaving an aching sadness that keeps reverberating. All of which makes Manchester by the Sea sound like the worst kind of stillborn tragedy, in which the everyday terrors of life are set in amber, sadness laid out as an object to be admired.
Thankfully, Lonergan’s profane and bracing script refuses to leave life to the side. It manages the pivot from mournfulness to humor without making either seem like an easy out. Surprisingly, this is a genuinely funny film, helped along in large part by Affleck’s pinpoint deadpan and also Hedges’ affecting performance. While Patrick’s efforts to hold on to his life patterns after his father’s death might have seemed callous in less deft hands, but Hedges helps us see the sense of his responses to a suddenly uncertain future as they are steeped in adolescent myopia: his dad might be dead, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop trying to get laid by one of his two girlfriends. At once vulnerable, fearful, and willful, Patrick is one of the movie’s more fascinating characters.
It’s Affleck’s performance that forms a remarkable center for the film, however. If some viewers may resist his cool distance in the present-day scenes, his roustabout energy and sarcastic verve in the flashbacks are infectious. They help to underline that the quietude Affleck deploys through most of the film is far from flat; he plays the silences like a fiddle.
It’s not a criticism to say that Manchester by the Sea is no Margaret. Lonergan has written a far more traditional story this time out, and doesn’t wrestle with as many large questions. Manchester by the Sea makes its own case as a remarkably human and brilliantly performed and written drama.