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“Manchester by the Sea”: A deeply affecting portrait of guilt and grace

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A truly great, if heartbreaking, film

If like me, you go to see Kenneth Lonergan’s new drama Manchester by the Sea knowing little more than the basics – that it stars Casey Affleck, that it’s about a blue-collar guy who returns to his Massachusetts hometown, and that it’s getting great reviews – let me offer a word of caution. This is a profoundly sad and deeply affecting film.

I don’t just mean that it’ll make you cry – though it will almost certainly do that – I mean that, like Kafka’s definition of a great story, it will reach deep into your soul, wound you, and make you grieve. If like me, you have Irish roots, come from New England, or are a brother, husband, or father working through your own mistakes and flaws, you can expect the catharsis to be that much more intense.

This is truly a great story, but not just because it’s so heartbreaking. Lonergan strikes a delicate emotional balance, one where wry bits of humor keep us from sinking down too deeply into the hard truths he explores. The result is an exquisite work of realism, and a grand-slam of writing, directing, and performances from its lead actor (Casey Affleck) and supporting actress (Michelle Williams) that rightfully earned Golden Globe nominations in all four categories.

But the heart of its greatness is Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler. A couple of movies have showcased the younger Affleck’s talent in the past, especially The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which earned him an Oscar nod). But with Manchester by the Sea, we get a whole new caliber of acting. From the opening frames, Affleck is a deceptively stoic soul living a life of quiet desperation, beating down strangers at bars and shoveling snow like his life depended on it. Something is clearly wrong with Lee; he plays his part as a handyman in Quincy, but his mind and soul are elsewhere.

One morning, Lee gets the call that his brother Joe has died, and we’re thrown into the first tragic movement of the film. But the stakes get infinitely higher when Lee goes from being a shoulder for Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to lean on to potentially being his legal guardian, right back home in Manchester. In a string of flashbacks seamlessly woven into the present, we see why. For Lee, being home again means stepping back into the heart of a darkness that almost extinguished him, and to stay home means to finally be extinguished.

Or does it?

To say that this is a story about “guilt” doesn’t say much; but to say, as one reviewer does, that it’s a story about “Catholic guilt” says even less. It’s clear that the Chandlers are an Irish Catholic family. (In the car ride home from Patrick’s visit to his estranged mother and her new husband Jeffrey, a pious bore played by Matthew Broderick, Lee asks Patrick how Jeffrey was. He responds that he seemed really Christian. “We’re Christians too,” Lee says. “Catholics are Christian.”) But what haunts Lee isn’t religious scrupulosity any more than everyday regret. In fact, if this is a story about Catholic anything, it’s the Catholic concept of grace.

Life has crushed Lee’s spirit to the fullest extent and in the worst possible way – by his own unremarkable, frail, human complicity. But Lonergan’s use of two pieces from Handel’s Messiah are powerful suggestions that there is a spiritual element to his journey home. The first, the instrumental Pifa (which takes its name from pifferari, shepherd bagpipers in Rome, and introduces the story of the shepherds in Bethlehem), plays when Lee first receives the call about Joe and travels back home. The second takes its text from Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew, and plays during the funeral, where Lee comes face to face with his past. And here again, the theme of the shepherd appears: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm… Come unto Him, all ye that labor, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest.” While being drawn home to confront his past is, on the face of it, the worst possible thing that could happen to Lee, it just might have been the gentle hand of grace shepherding him away from – not toward – self-destruction.

The film doesn’t tie a nice red bow around Lee’s story, and doesn’t need to. After such a painful experience, it’s enough to be reminded that wherever there’s life – and grace – there’s hope.

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