Without revealing too much: The crucial moment in Kenneth Lonergan's third feature, "Manchester by the Sea," arrives in a scene set in the police station of the Massachusetts coastal town of the title.
Lee, played by a rivetingly contained Casey Affleck, is relaying the details of the incident that has changed his life. When he comes to the point in the interrogation when he reveals the small, horribly plausible human error at the heart of his tragedy, the one alluded to by various other characters in Lonergan's movie for nearly an hour before we get the full story, Affleck pauses for several seconds. The weight of what has happened, and his role in it, seems to physically shrink Lee.
Grief is a subject toyed with constantly in the movies, usually in ways that get resolved quickly and swept under the nearest rug. Not here. Lonergan does not let Lee, or the audience, off the hook. The movie's neither hopeful in contrived ways, nor hopeless in different contrived ways. Somehow it manages to be wonderful.
We first meet Lee in the present day, long after he has fled Manchester-by-the-Sea for a monkish existence working as a handyman for a string of apartment complexes closer to Boston. Then his brother dies (we learn this early on) and Lee is forced to return home to deal with who will become guardian of Lee's 16-year-old nephew, Patrick, played by the inspired young actor Lucas Hedges.
Of course "Manchester by the Sea" is sorrowful; its events ensure as much. But as was the case in Lonergan's two previous features, "You Can Count on Me" (2000) with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo and "Margaret" (2011) with Anna Paquin, random, fatal bad luck exists side by side with a bracing amount of humor, and the tones and colors ebb and flow throughout.
A wry realist, Lonergan does exactly what Hollywood hardly ever does. Think back to "Terms of Endearment": Boisterous, funny, then BOOM: cancer, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy, crying, crying, tearful farewells, catharsis, Oscars. This movie works another way; true to Lonergan's stage work, it's more like Anton Chekhov in its bittersweet comic and dramatic strategy, where it's all mixed up together.
For much of the movie, we simply hang with Lee and watch, rapt, as he gets through the days and deals with his guilt and drunken outbursts. Then Lonergan sets the narrative in its ultimate direction, when Lee re-enters his nephew's life. "Manchester by the Sea" finds its buoyancy in Patrick's hectic love life, his band practice with one of his two girlfriends, his wary but increasingly loving relationship with his uncle. The way Affleck and Hedges work together, busting each other's chops, lashing out, shutting down, reaching out again, it's one of the peak acting partnerships of the movie year.
Lonergan jumps back and forth from present day to flashbacks, focused on Lee's brother (Kyle Chandler, just right in his gruff naturalism), and Lee's marriage to Randi in its lived-in detail. The story structure's tricky, and with less astute editing the whole thing might have dissolved into mournful chaos. But editor Jennifer Lame has done amazing work in collaboration with Lonergan. (The writer-director shows up on screen, in a huge winter parka, for a brief, testy comic cameo as a passer-by.)
Michelle Williams plays Randi, who drops in and out of the story as a vibrant reminder of Lee's defining tragedy. She's as marvelous as ever, but everyone's good in "Manchester by the Sea." I'm not sure what to make of the subtle but distinct (and, I think, limiting) gender issues here; the female characters are shown as nags or spoilsports or noble backbones without their fair share of complexity. From first to last this is a story of male behavior and masculine codes of living, however flawed. Lee's hometown hasn't changed a lot over the decades. Yet after all the violent Massachusetts-set fairy tales we've had in the movies in recent years, coming from Dennis Lehane stories or thereabouts, it's refreshing to sit with a movie that's more like a novel or a beautiful short story, one that stays true, tough and honest to the end.
As a protagonist Lee is stuck, boxed-in, and while I love the way and the degree to which "Manchester by the Sea" finds a measure of peace for this character, it won't be enough for some people. I can't do anything about those people. This is one of the year's highlights, and it's unclassifiable, really. And that's a serious achievement.
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual content).
Running time: 2:17