Casey Affleck's bid for gold

Manchester by the Sea
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Rated M, 138 minutes
4 stars

It’s probably fair to say that Kenneth Lonergan is more comfortable writing for the theatre than the screen, which is not to say he does one better than the other. It’s just that getting movies made with this level of fine writing is hard – harder than doing heart surgery in Hollywood.

Lonergan’s dialogue is never about its surface; the acting in the two films he directed before (You Can Count On Me, and Margaret) is a mixture of minimalism and realism, which only ever appeals to a smaller audience; and his films are often set in the aftermath of personal tragedies so painful that distributors don’t know how to market them. (The release of Margaret was a debacle).

Manchester by the Sea has all of that and more to dissuade a popular audience. And yet, there it is, vying for Best Picture against the more cheerful La La Land and the more transporting Moonlight. So it should be, because Manchester by the Sea is the kind of movie you don’t forget easily. I take it as a sign of hope: intelligent, unflinchingly brave movies are not dead yet. Writer’s movies are not dead yet. Films in which actors contribute as much as the script are not dead yet.

Lonergan did not come up with the idea. Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both Boston-raised actors, came to him with the kernel – a man returns to his hometown after a death in the family; he discovers he is expected to take care of a teenager, a job for which he is completely unsuited. Lonergan makes it his own. He creates a whole world around it, in which every character is as real as a runny nose or dirty fingernails. There are no minor characters: the smallest part comes with the same work behind it, building a sense of realism.

What might surprise those new to Lonergan’s work is the humour he brings to tragedy. That’s also like life, but hard to get right. When the film begins, Casey Affleck, as Lee Chandler, is a janitor in Boston, shovelling snow, unblocking toilets and dealing with tenants as demanding as they are rude.

Lonergan shows Lee’s darker side in the laconic then explosive way he responds to them, followed by a scene in a bar where he picks a fight with two men, just so he can get beaten up and park his pain somewhere. We know now that he carries deep emotional wounds, but not what they are from. Lonergan proceeds quietly, without filling in the dots, layering in a sense of mystery.

We see in flashback how Lee used to be – teasing his young nephew Patrick with stories of sharks as a grinning Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee’s older brother, steers them out to sea on his lobster boat. This former Lee is sunny, romantic, a good father to three little kids. His wife Randi (Michelle Williams) adores him, even if he likes too many drinks. He’s hardly the first drinker she’s known in this small community of fishermen north of Boston.

The second half is about the tatters of these relationships. Patrick is now 16 and played by Lucas Hedges, who has a big future. He and Lee are close – so close they fight on sight. Patrick wants to live his life – he has two girlfriends, a new band, affinity with the sea, like his dad. Patrick has so much optimism, it’s almost an affront to Lee – another reason he can’t take care of him.

One of Lonergan’s aims here is to shoot down the truism that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Lee Chandler isn’t stronger; he’s barely human after experiencing something unimaginably awful. At the same time, there is still hope. Lonergan would probably admit people can change; just that they rarely do.

Affleck has rightly been nominated for a superb performance, but everyone in the film is better than good. Affleck keeps Lee on a tight rein, because he knows he’ll unravel if he talks. He and Michelle Williams have one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Lonergan came to this project after a six-year debacle over the production of Margaret, in which he was unsuccessfully sued by his own producer. Lonergan’s own depression and sense of loss feeds into the film, as surely as the beautiful locations feed into the way the story struggles towards hope. It’s a haunting story, beautifully told.