In the opening scene of Kenneth Lonergan's third feature, a trawler burbles unhurriedly into harbor beneath an azure sky. At the wheel is Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler). Lee (Casey Affleck), his younger brother, horses around with Joe's young son, Patrick. Because composer Lesley Barber's ghostly a cappella theme immediately grabs you, it's possible to miss Affleck's first lines:
"If you could take one guy to an island," he asks the boy, "and you knew you'd be safe because he was going to figure out how to survive, was going to make the world a good place and keep you happy ... If it was between me and your father, who would you take?"
The exchange proves to be a poignant bit of foreshadowing. Lonergan (Margaret) is an award-winning writer-director and playwright whose work evinces a fascination with personal tragedy and the ways it's processed. In his stories, people don't get downsized or divorced. They lose parents to grisly collisions, distract bus drivers who steamroll pedestrians or live lives turned into nightmares by 9/11.
In his latest, he deals characters his darkest cards yet. Following that carefree opening is a scene set a decade later. Lee's a janitor in Boston. He gets a call drawing him back to his hometown; Joe has been rushed to the hospital. By the time Lee arrives, his brother's heart has given out and he's gone.
That's just the tip of the narrative iceberg. Lee is divorced from Randi (Michelle Williams), the wife we've glimpsed in flashbacks. The children we saw there are nowhere to be seen. Not only is Joe dead, but his wife (Gretchen Mol) has disappeared. And remember little Patrick? He's 16 now (played smartly by Lucas Hedges), and Lee's blindsided when he learns he's the boy's guardian. Remember those opening lines?
Let's hit pause, because this is the point where the movie could take either of two roads. It could become a feel-good saga with life lessons and redemption. Or it could fulfill its promise as a definitive Lonergan creation, which means no emotional breakthroughs or final-act salvations. Damaged guy is paired up with a teen in a picturesque New England fishing village. One wrong move, and you've got Scent of a Woman with hip waders.
Moments of warmth, even humor, intermingle with scenes of Lee struggling to carry a terrible weight. Movie critic law prohibits my specifying the tragedy that haunts him, beyond saying it's as bad as it gets. The kid helps him lighten up here and there, but it can't hold. Meanwhile, the film's design and cinematography mirror the raging inside Lee. Nothing like a wintry Atlantic inlet battered by storms for that.
Lonergan's dialogue, as always, is a thing of beauty. When Lee runs into Randi late in the film, for instance, she begs forgiveness for things she's said. He can't forgive himself. He avoids eye contact, searches the horizon and shakes his head. "There's nothing there," he says.
This is a movie about the way everything can change in an instant, and Affleck is extraordinary in it. Let's pause again to consider the allegations of harassment against the actor that resurfaced recently, and whether mistakes Affleck made in 2010 should change the way we look at this film.
I'm one of many reviewers who believed director Nate Parker's past and dismissive attitude about it disqualified The Birth of a Nation from award consideration. Does Lonergan's film deserve the same treatment? Of course not, precisely because it's Lonergan's film, not Affleck's. Manchester by the Sea is so much more than any single performance that nobody should think twice about seeing it. A filmmaker this gifted paying for someone else's mistakes — that, too, would be a tragedy.