This review contains spoilers.
The three films written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan—You Can Count on Me (2000), Margaret (2011), and his latest, Manchester by the Sea—all deal with grief, guilt, responsibility, and connection. But Manchester, which already has garnered some serious awards buzz, is the most explicit in threading these ideas together. Its protagonist, a directionless janitor named Lee (Casey Affleck), is haunted by a tragedy in his recent past when he returns to the title Massachusetts town to bury his older brother and learns that he's been named legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Margaret may be the more lyrical film, and You Can Count on Me is more straightforward in its telling, but Manchester is the most daring of the three for the way Lonergan paints a fresh layer of grief over an existing one: the death of Lee's brother (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler) from congenital heart failure comes as no surprise, but it proves doubly painful for Lee, compounding the tragedy in his past. Lonergan rejects the platitudes about grief offered by more formulaic films, opting instead for messy, open-ended journeys that trade in life's mundanities and uncomfortable truths. Manchester by the Sea, like Lonergan's previous films, suggests that the only meaning to be found in tragedy is the wisdom that it's meaningless, that grief is not to be overcome, but to be borne.
Trauma shapes all of Lonergan's protagonists, who grapple with the horror and injustice of life while reaching out to others, often unconsciously, to fill their emotional void. In You Can Count on Me, grown siblings Terry (Mark Ruffalo) and Sammy (Laura Linney) are bound by their parents' death in a car crash years earlier, struggling to comprehend the role grief played in forming them. In Margaret, 17-year-old Lisa (Anna Paquin) attempts to deal responsibly with the role she played in a stranger's accidental death and, in doing so, learns that adults can be as irresponsible as children. Lee also wrestles with guilt, grief, and responsibility—his three young children have died in a house fire caused by his carelessness—before realizing that he'll never get over what happened. "People don't want to move on from their feelings of loss, exactly," Lonergan explained in a recent interview on National Public Radio. "You feel like you owe it to the people that you've lost to remember them, and to carry that pain around with you in some form."
His characters may nurse their grief, but they try to process their guilt by punishing other people—and themselves. Terry commits petty crimes, Sammy sleeps with her married boss, Lisa seduces one of her teachers, and Lee, the most blighted of them all, drinks and fights. Lonergan's characters ring true in the way they talk around their emotional issues, baiting others into an emotional response of their own or simply talking over them to drown out things they don't want to hear. Lee chooses to surround himself with people, but whether he'll appease or provoke them depends on whether he happens to be numb or overwhelmed by pain.
A playwright originally, Lonergan understands that people rarely say what they mean, especially if their feelings are raw, and both Lee and Patrick protect themselves with tough talk. This posturing keeps their feelings in check, and when this pretense fails, their encounters are more clumsy than cathartic. In a humorous scene, Patrick breaks down over a piece of meat in the freezer that reminds him of his father's refrigerated corpse, and Lee kicks in Patrick's bedroom door to offer awkward consolation. Later, Lee explains to Patrick in four simple words that his anguish precludes him from staying in Manchester: "I can't beat it." Though thankful for each other's presence, Lee and Patrick would rather keep their emotions capped. Still, they seem to know—like Sammy and Terry in You Can Count on Me and Lisa and her mother in Margaret—that their connection, fortified through loss, is the one true constant in their lives.
By contrast, Lee's unexpected connection with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), drives him over the edge. Near the end of the film, they bump into each other on the street, standing over a stroller that holds Randi's newborn child by another man. In a rush of overlapping dialogue, Randi unspools her grief, and Lee denies his own, clenching and coiling into himself. She tells him that they'll never get over what happened, that their hearts will always be broken. By the end of Manchester by the Sea, Lee has accepted that his grief is too powerful to overcome. Instead of shedding their losses for some sugarcoated sense of peace, Lonergan's protagonists learn how to carry them. v