Greetings again from the darkness. Grief. When a loved one dies, we experience a sorrow that is impossible to define. It can take on many different looks through various stages. When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) receives a phone call, he rushes back to his hometown, but arrives at the hospital too late to say goodbye to his big brother whose years-long battle with heart disease has ended abruptly. It’s at this point that we begin to realize there is more to Lee’s daily disquiet than we had realized in his early scenes as an apartment complex janitor.
This is director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) and in each, death plays a crucial role. Mr. Lonergan is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter (Gangs of New York, Analyze This, Analyze That), and here he displays an incredible feel for humor and sarcasm amidst the ominous presence of gloom.
If you aren’t yet scared off, you will be rewarded with one of the most outstanding films of the year, and one of the best ever on-screen portrayals of grief. Casey Affleck embodies Lee as the broken man – a tortured soul who doesn’t blame himself for the unspeakable tragedy that destroyed his life, yet neither can he forgive himself. As penance, he has basically dropped out of society and moved to Quincy, where he lives in a dumpy apartment simply trying to survive each day shoveling snow and fixing leaky faucets. It’s his way of not facing the present while avoiding the memories that haunt him in his hometown.
The death of big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces Lee to return to Manchester and handle the endless details of arrangements. He then learns that Joe’s will states that Lee is to take over guardianship of 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As we learn from flashbacks, Lee and Patrick long ago bonded as Uncle/Nephew. Things are much different now – not just for Lee, but also for Patrick. He’s a popular athlete, musician and high school lothario … seemingly unwilling to accept the change brought about by the death of his father, and the long ago abandonment by his unstable mom (Gretchen Mol).
The flashbacks serve as the reference as to how this family and these relationships reached this point in time. We also see the devastating event that crushed Lee’s soul and left him unrecognizable from the one time life of the party, and doting husband and father. It also explains his approach to his unwanted duties in finishing brother Bob’s job raising Patrick, and why much of the town treats Lee as a pariah.
In addition to the brilliant writing and wonderful cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), it’s the highest level of acting that elevates this film to the level of extraordinary. Ms. Mol and Mr. Chandler are joined in the supporting cast by Matthew Broderick as Ms. Mol’s evangelical husband, CJ Wilson as Bob’s former friend and partner, and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. It seems like we have watched Lucas Hedges grow up on screen through the years, and he really nails the surprisingly complex role of Patrick. As terrific as all of these actors are, it’s Affleck who redefines grief and sorrow and pain. In fact, the single scene towards the end when Affleck and Williams meet by happenstance, is so powerfully acted that it alone should garner nominations for each. It’s a gut-wrenching scene that tells us sometimes reconciliation is just not possible.
This is a heavy drama set in a cold environment with hard people – at least on the outside. It’s not the typical Boston blue collar drama, but rather more the psychology of being a man. There is enough humor to prevent the weight from being too much on viewers, and Lonergan pokes a bit of fun at the Massachusetts accent by tossing in arguments about Star Trek and sharks, and a scene about parking the car. The diverse music of Handel, Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald somehow complements the mournful Lee … the Humpty Dumpty of Manchester – unable to be put back together again. It’s certainly one of the gems of the year.