This post contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen “Manchester by the Sea,” continue with caution.
When “Manchester by the Sea” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, post-screening chatter fixated predominantly on a particular scene toward the movie’s end. Journalists happy to counter one another on any given film’s hallmarks seemed mostly in agreement: This shattering exchange defined the rawness of Kenneth Lonergan’s family-grief saga.
The scene in question is an encounter between reticent Massachusetts handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Years after Lee inadvertently scorched their home, killing their three children, both are out walking one afternoon when they cross paths. With her newborn in tow, Randi insists on apologizing to Lee for her ire. “I should fuckin’ burn in hell for what I said,” she spouts tearfully. The words tumble from Randi’s mouth, having clearly boiled inside of her for some time. I burst into sobs the second they escaped.
To isolate the scene too much is to miss the point. Lonergan, whose work traces the fragility of human relationships, plants seeds that blossom as the movie inches toward Randi and Lee’s meeting. We never find out what Randi’s damning remarks were, and it doesn’t matter. We know the trauma stunted Lee emotionally ― he can barely express himself to the nephew (Lucas Hedges) under his guardianship after the death of his only sibling (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks). The criss-crossed dialogue during Randi and Lee’s conversation echoes their vulnerability: She has so much she needs to say, and he has so much he can’t stomach hearing.
“She sees that he is crippled and broken and a shell of a human being,” Lonergan said during a phone conversation with The Huffington Post last week. “She doesn’t want that for him. She still loves him, even though the relationship is not there anymore. She’s desperate to undo her part in whatever it is that made him feel he has no right to have a life anymore. She can’t take away what happened, but she can take away her part in it. He doesn’t want to take it away because he doesn’t feel he deserves it. But it’s so sweet because he says, ‘I appreciate everything you’re trying to say; I just can’t talk to you.’ She’s married to someone else now, so the worst thing she says to him is that she loves him. His reaction when she does that just kills me. Your heart breaks for both of them.”
While writing the script ― based on an idea brought to him by producers Matt Damon and John Krasinski ― Lonergan knew he was leading to a scene where Randi runs into Lee on the street and begs him to have lunch. As he was mapping out the exchange, Lonergan emphasized the characters’ fractured ability to communicate. Cue the overlapping dialogue and fragmented thoughts. Lee is too overcome to respond to Randi’s sentiments in full. When Randi declares she shouldn’t say she still loves him, Lee responds, “You can say it, but ― no, it’s just ― I ― I can’t ― I gotta go.”
Lonergan would test the scene aloud as he wrote, timing the rhythm to reflect a hurried encounter between two people battling the demons of prolonged grief. On paper, the parley looks tremendously difficult to master. The trick, Lonergan said, was making Affleck and Williams aware of the details not in the script, specifically that Randi had called Lee a “murderer.”
A noted playwright, Lonergan rehearses with his actors before shooting, which some Hollywood budgets don’t allot time for. Before Lonergan made his first film, 2000’s “You Can Count on Me,” his pal Matthew Broderick offered some advice: Set aside extra time for the most important scenes. Lonergan employed the same guidance on 2011’s “Margaret,” and again on “Manchester by the Sea.” But he credits Affleck and Williams for not needing any supplements.
“I think we got there at 10 in the morning and we were done by lunchtime because they were so ready to shoot it,” Lonergan recalled. “It went beautifully from the very beginning.”
Many of the journalists who praised “Manchester” at Sundance were disappointed to see the scene they loved ― a scene that serves as emotional payoff ― included in the movie’s trailer. It requires context. It requires knowing who Lee Chandler is, knowing he’s finally trying to put his nephew’s needs ahead of his own, knowing he’s finally in a decent mood when Randi rounds the corner.
“Part of me is bummed out by that,” Lonergan said of Roadside Attractions’ choice to feature the excerpt. “Part of me knows the scene is very compelling and the trailer is the way to get people to see the movie. I’m not here to tell the marketing people how to do their job. I weigh in, I give my opinion. I think there’s a danger of the scene being overexposed, but on the other hand, I hope any scene that’s really genuinely good is not going to be ruined seeing it once. I wouldn’t like to make a movie that’s only good the first time you watched it. To me, that’s not a good movie.”
To Lonergan’s point, seeing the movie a second time at the New York Film Festival in October reconfirmed my affinity. “Manchester” moves along at the perfect emotional tempo. For a story about grief, it’s surprisingly funny. Familiarity with the characters accentuates its humorous beats. The big scene wasn’t quite as powerful as it was in January, nor should it be. It’s the film’s elliptical nature that makes the initial viewing so impactful. The second time around, you notice its nuances, particularly what a wise-cracking charmer Lee was before tragedy struck. That awareness reinforces the anguish of Randi’s good intentions during their afternoon reunion.
“She’s so anxious to help him and let him know that she’s forgiven him and pull him out of the hole he’s in,” Lonergan said. “She’s so worried she’s going to hurt him by doing it, and he so desperately doesn’t want to speak to her and can’t bear to talk to her because it’s too painful for him, but he so doesn’t want to hurt her feelings or make her feel bad for trying. They’re falling over each other. She’s falling over herself trying to get to him without hurting him, and he’s desperate to slip away without hurting her, and it’s impossible in both cases.”
“Manchester by the Sea” is now in theaters.