Like a carefully wrought piece of origami, “Manchester by the Sea” unfolds slowly and delicately to reveal its inner workings, building over time into one of the most powerful emotional experiences filmgoers will have this year. Anchored by a quietly volcanic central performance by Casey Affleck, in a breathtaking breakout role he’s long deserved, this tough, tender, utterly heartbreaking chamber piece is the kind of movie that seems reverse-engineered to leave its audience feeling walloped, but in the best of ways. Every tear is more than earned in a story that never feels anything less than unfailingly authentic.
Those same cardinal qualities imbue previous films by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, who displayed similar sensitivity and an uncanny ear for dialogue in “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret.” As accomplished as those movies were, here he seems to take a great leap forward as a filmmaker who has mastered the art of staging, framing and editing, to lend newfound stateliness to his visual storytelling. That stylistic growth aside, “Manchester by the Sea,” like all of Lonergan’s work, is essentially about people: their quirks, foibles, self-deceptions and often fruitless attempts at overcoming their inner demons. The spot-on sense of mood and atmosphere notwithstanding, it’s the voices of its characters that give this film a power just as haunting as the memories that dog them, day in and day out.
Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, is the person most afflicted by the past in “Manchester by the Sea,” which opens on a serene montage of Lee doing his job, as the janitor for a group of apartment buildings in Boston. When he receives a phone call summoning him back to his home town of Manchester, Lee accepts it with the same wounded stoicism with which he approaches a clogged drain or an incomplete pass from a female admirer. He’s tamping something down, but it’s so far submerged that it only erupts after a few beers, in the form of a bar fight Lee goes out of his way to pick with two seemingly harmless customers.
The source of Lee’s pain forms the suspenseful fulcrum of “Manchester by the Sea,” in which encounters with people and places from his past inspire alternately happy and tragic flashbacks. As in all of Lonergan’s films, most of the dramatic action occurs at the interstices of life, those in-between spaces that other filmmakers either ignore or cut out as not being “dynamic” enough. Whether it’s a mundane conversation in a hospital corridor or a procedural meeting with an attorney, Lonergan continually finds ways to reveal the emotional core of his characters — in this case a man who on the surface may seem shut down and closed off from the world, but who turns out to be fighting every moment to keep both shame and redemption at arm’s length.
Nowhere is the struggle more pronounced than in Lee’s relationship with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a high school student who desperately wants to regain the closeness he once shared with his gruffly affectionate uncle. It’s in Lee and Patrick’s tetchy back-and-forth that “Manchester by the Sea” displays its most observant humor. (Few writers, male or female, have as sure a bead on the modern adolescent girl as Lonergan, as is evidenced by Patrick’s hilariously emotion-policing girlfriend.) Those scenes, as well as the endearing efforts of a local mom to draw Lee into a friendship, leaven what would otherwise be a crushingly morose tale. Still, by the time Lee is faced with the film’s most harrowing, gut-punching confrontation — staged as a wrenching duet of recrimination and regret with Michelle Williams — it’s clear that, with “Manchester by the Sea,” Lonergan’s proven facility with sweetness and sadness will overwhelmingly favor the latter.
In case the point isn’t obvious by now, “Manchester by the Sea” is a tear-jerker, made all the more so by Lonergan’s steadfast unwillingness to indulge in tidy reversals of heart or convenient happy endings. In that way, this might be the most joy-inspiring movie of the year, proving that there’s still space in the cinematic universe for genuine compassion rather than cheesy uplift; rigorous honesty rather than pandering manipulation. “Manchester by the Sea” is a film of surpassing beauty and heart. Even at its most melancholy depths, it brims with candid, earnest, indefatigable life.
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity throughout and some sexual content. 137 minutes.