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Tangled Up in Blue: Manchester by the Sea (Review)

Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is a film that feels so real there really isn’t a moment that allows us to step out of it to remind us we’re watching actors living a carefully planned narrative. Because life doesn’t spare us any rest stops, maybe movies shouldn’t either. In this richly drawn portrait of unending grief, Casey Affleck is a protagonist at odds with what we want from him or for him or for the movie. Such is the nature of our need for films to fix things we can’t fix in our lives.

Manchester by the Sea is easily Affleck’s best work in a long career of playing characters who keep so much in until, at last, they explode emotionally. What is so brilliant about this performance is that his face, his eyes, tell us what he can’t, what he never will. Thus, what’s compelling and fascinating about the film is watching how Affleck’s character manages the emotions he can’t bring himself to face.

But Lonergan is a man full of humor, so this isn’t a gloomy film, or even a depressing one. Rather, its sadness is drawn from the film’s central subject — overcoming grief and guilt and shame. Affleck is paired with newcomer Lucas Hedges, who plays his nephew, and together they make Manchester by the Sea as funny as it is such a deeply felt rendering of personal pain. The film’s many laughs are a welcome reminder that even in the worst of times, we humans can almost always find ways to smile.

Lonergan takes us through careful stages with his main character as the story plays out mysteriously. What isn’t said, what isn’t shown, is really what’s happening. What we see on screen is the aftermath of it. Lonergan often cuts after a scene is set up, and as the characters sort out what went wrong we let our imaginations do the work. Cleaning up the mess we made, or the mess others have made — that’s what Manchester by the Sea is about. It is also about facing the truth about ourselves, even if it means we disappoint people we love who see us as better than we are.

Although the film is built around the relationship between Affleck and Hedges, they receive fine support from many others, notably Kyle Chandler and Michelle Williams, whose work stands out even if their parts aren’t as large. There are plenty of trademark Lonergan cameos who pop in and out to provide yet more comic relief.

Walking away from Manchester by the Sea I could really only think about Casey Affleck’s face. As human beings, we assess the pain of others by studying their faces. How badly are they hurt? How withered have they become. For Affleck’s character Lee, what he wants and needs is to be alone in his heartache and that’s the one thing he can’t have because he’s connected to people who rely on him.

In certain ways, Manchester by the Sea and La La Land are similar films, though of course completely different. Both represent what it means to have and then lose the very best life has to offer. Our happiness is tied up in our knowing that what we hold dear is precious.

To even go there at all, where Casey Affleck goes in Manchester by the Sea, is unthinkable. To watch someone endure something most of us could not — the most horrible thing anyone could ever imagine — is not easy. This is a film about the remnants of accidental, sudden loss and how we find people we can count on to help save whatever is left in the wake of it.

Manchester by the Sea, as you already know from what’s been said about it, is one of the best films of the year. It’s easily Kenneth Lonergan’s and Casey Affleck’s best work. Lonergan gave Affleck the room to explore what would happen if. What I saw in Affleck’s face, finally, is what I discovered when I looked and looked. What I saw in my mind when I walked away from it and tried to sleep was Affleck himself imagining that kind of loss. He knows what I know, what any person who has raised a child knows: that there is nothing else you are put on earth to do except take care of that child, or those children. It is a primal urge and divine directive. And one that can’t be undone unless you are someone disconnected from it. This is not a film about someone disconnected from it.

Sad and beautiful, Manchester by the Sea is not a dark film, nor really a depressing one. It’s just about living with the truth laid bare. And that might be, in the end, the only thing that matters.