Manchester by the Sea is that rare breed of a film where it's almost about what happens once the credits roll. Like The Station Agent or Lost in Translation, Manchester by the Sea informs by observation rather than examination, but drives a harder emotional core.
What was already a mooted Oscar nominated performance, Casey Affleck gives a profoundly disciplined performance as Lee Chandler. A man that has both geographically and emotionally distanced himself from a devastating event. Even when Affleck is doing nothing there's a riveting game of "show and tell" - we're not told anything for some time, but his performance shows us everything about this damaged soul. Even when he's not igniting bar fights, every sideways glance or gesture broadcasts the acrimony spilling from his broken character.
Even though the death of Lee's brother happens early on, calling him back from the self-imposed purgatory, it takes it's time to tell Lee's. It may take a few turns of the flashback scenes for you to realise the events are from a time gone by. A jovial and fun uncle teases his nephew about sharks on regular jaunts on his brother's boat; a far cry from the current tense's main character. However, director Kenneth Lonergan delicately handles the shift rather than ham-fist a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. It makes for a graceful curiosity and ultimately regret when you find out the harrowing events that crushed Lee's soul. One scene in particular, when Michelle Williams' Randi tries to bridge the chasm that brutally distanced the former couple, is heart breakingly played out. Not just because of Randi's proclamation and offer to mutually heal, but mainly because of Lee's inability to offer anything back. So accepting of never being able to move on, his grunts and monosyllabic responses underline his tragedy.
Lonergan's penchant to observe rather than manipulate also offers some real life humor. While the weighty themes of grief and loss permeate this tale, the honest exchanges are a welcome highlight. Both sincerely awkward situations and the tetchy te-a-tets between Lee and his nephew are as disarmingly genuine. They also slyly serve to build an understanding between these alienated relatives. "I can't beat this," Lee explains to his nephew Patrick and the mute glance received is more powerful than any Oscar-worthy monologue.
For anyone looking for a cathartic journey through the grieving process may be disappointed, there's no tidy resolution here. That being said, Manchester by the Sea is a brilliantly effecting story of how grief can become just as much a part of us as any triumph over it.
4* - What we got in the fire