By CARL SCHULTZ
Occasionally it seems as if we’ve become disillusioned as a society, so bereft of self-esteem that to find heroes we need to turn to film adaptations of comic books. In the absence of authentic, real-life examples of moral integrity, we instead need to measure ourselves against characters who leap tall buildings at a single bound, harness genetic distinctions to vanquish otherworldly despots or sweep through outer space in futuristic fighter jets to liberate oppressed civilizations in galaxies far, far away.
We sometimes need to be reminded that those people who toil quietly day after day in lives of common decency — obeying society’s rules, working unspectacular professions, providing for their families, supporting their friends, envisioning modest dreams of a better life ahead — are the genuine Supermen and Wonder Women of our world.
One movie which recognizes that essential truth — and gets it right, and celebrates it — is the new release “Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan and distributed by Amazon Studios, a subsidiary of the popular online retailer of books, games and movies.
In “Manchester by the Sea,” a man on the worn edge of youth lives out a solitary and humorless existence as a custodian in a Boston apartment building. Played by actor Casey Affleck, Lee Chandler regards the world through wary, guarded eyes and keeps humanity at arm’s length, drawing no more or less satisfaction from a cold beer after work than from unclogging a tenant’s stopped toilet during his workday.
One afternoon while shoveling snow, Lee receives a telephone call: His brother has suffered a heart attack, and has been taken in critical condition to the hospital in the nearby town of Manchester by the Sea. Lee displays no outward emotion at the news — he quietly assures the caller he’ll leave for the hospital immediately. Manchester by the Sea is Lee’s hometown, we are told. He left there years earlier under unknown circumstances.
Arriving at the hospital, Lee learns his brother has died, and that he needs to assume a measure of family responsibility and attend to the brother’s unresolved business and final arrangements. In the process he’ll need to interact with friends and family members he hasn’t seen or spoken with in a number of years.
From that point forward, “Manchester by the Sea” departs from a traditional narrative structure. As the estranged Lee begins to somberly address his burdens, he draws upon memories of the past, presented to the viewer in the form of flashbacks.
Little by little, we learn about Lee’s family and his background. And as we eventually discover the unspeakable tragedy which devastated the laconic custodian’s life and drove him away, we realize what a selfless and heroic gesture he’s undertaken by returning home to assume his brother’s responsibilities.
Actor Casey Affleck has at times during his career seemed almost to court audience indifference. Often regarded as the less-flamboyant younger brother of Academy Award-winning superstar Ben Affleck — the older Affleck’s buddy and occasional collaborator Matt Damon is one of the producers of “Manchester by the Sea” — possibly Casey Affleck’s most memorable role prior to this picture was as Bob Ford in 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” in which the actor inhabited the character of a man reviled by history and damned in folklore — not exactly superstar material. Casey Affleck is one actor who’s resisted donning the spandex uniform and cape of a comic book superhero.
The highest accolade for both “Manchester by the Sea,” and for Affleck’s performance in it, is that is seems as if writer/director Lonergan conspired with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes to simply camouflage the camera and capture life itself, in all its emotional pageantry. Like film ancestors such as 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and 1980’s “Ordinary People,” this picture actually seem natural enough to enforce the notion that we’re eavesdropping on actual occurrences, or viewing another family’s home movies.
We learn that Lee’s brother Joe, a charter boat owner, has always guided him and tried to shield him from life’s unfairnesses. And that in either one final lesson in responsibility or a cardinal gesture of confidence — we’re not quite sure which — the now-deceased brother has entrusted Lee with the custody of his 16-year-old son.
Playing Joe in flashbacks is Kyle Chandler, an actor whose movie star good looks belie his range and effectiveness in the roles he plays. Late of television’s critically acclaimed “Friday Night Lights” — he played the coach — Chandler has also contributed quietly authoritative and eminently persuasive supporting performances in such pictures as Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” remake, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the 2011 Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams collaboration “Super 8.”
In one telling flashback episode of “Manchester by the Sea,” Lee and Joe and Joe’s young son arrive home to discover Joe’s fragile and neurotic wife passed out on the couch, nude, in an alcoholic stupor. Wordlessly, automatically, the two brothers with practiced nonchalance move together to protect the young son from the sight of his mom’s shame — obviously this has happened before.
As Lee swiftly spirits the boy from the room, Joe lingers for a moment, considers, and then in an act of gentle decency covers his wife with a blanket. There’s no anger, contempt or bitterness in his eyes, only infinite disappointment and sadness. Not many actors could pull off that delicacy of emotion as effectively, especially without dialogue. Chandler does.
Also contributing a memorable characterization to the picture is the superb Michelle Williams, who enhances and enriches seemingly every film in which she chooses to appear, from the title role as Marilyn Monroe in the acclaimed “My Week with Marilyn,” to “Brokeback Mountain” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.” As Lee’s former wife, Williams etches another memorable characterization in a resume as one of the finest performers in American film, although her role in this picture is not as large as her billing suggests.
But a real revelation in “Manchester by the Sea” is the performance of Lucas Hedges as Joe’s emotionally orphaned son, Patrick. Alternately outgoing and guarded, aggressive and vulnerable, manipulative and trusting, Hedges’ Patrick persuasively invests the character of the wounded teenager with all the qualities found in real life.
Like two virtuosos playing dueling solos, the scenes between the brash Hedges and the laconic Affleck are the highlight of the picture. Plainly Lucas Hedges is one young actor who’s going places.
Appropriately, the music soundtrack for the picture, composed by Lesley Barber, is strongly reminiscent of symphonic passages and tone poems, with a particular similarity to the intricate and exacting works of Antonio Vivaldi. As with the best of the romantic classics, not a note is wasted. And in this movie as with an orchestral performance, even the members of the ensemble with the smallest parts are essential to the overall quality of the piece.
Near the end of the picture is a brief episode which takes place on the deceased Joe Chandler’s charter boat. The scene is set in the present, after Joe’s burial, and onboard to test the craft’s seaworthiness are Lee, Patrick and Patrick’s girlfriend. The boy is piloting the boat around the harbor.
Impulsively, Patrick invites his girlfriend to take the wheel for a moment and steer the boat. Nervous, she simultaneously accelerates and turns the craft sharply — a deadly combination. But Lee, in the back of the boat, never flinches or reaches out to steady himself. Instead, he just flexes his hips and knees and rolls with the lurch of the boat — a balanced man, living with confidence for possibly the first time in his life.
But the real denouement of the scene is the expression we see in that moment on Affleck’s face: His brow, until now darkened and knotted with anxiety, is bright with confidence and optimism, and his guarded face is melted into a broad smile of ease and happiness. For the first time in the picture there’s love and affection in his eyes. It’s a family moment, and at long last Lee has assumed a place in his family dynamic, tasting responsibility and liking it, making decisions on behalf of others — good or bad, right or wrong — but prepared to live with the consequences.
It’s an important moment, not only in the picture but also likely among all the films of the year: It is in that moment that we behold a flawed and fallible character embrace maturity, and begin to grow and more forward.
“Manchester by the Sea” is the rare motion picture which invites us to invest in its characters, and walk along with them. Even at 137 minutes the film leaves us wanting more. It enlightens us as it entertains us, and leaves us with an impression of humanity we sense might remain with us long into the future.
Currently the picture is playing in the smaller auditoriums of local multiplexes. But when Academy Award nominations are revealed in a few weeks, “Manchester by the Sea” is one of the titles we’ll surely be hearing announced.