Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
One thing that tends to get on my nerves is when someone says that they don’t like a certain film because they find it depressing. Even if the film ends on a positive, hopeful note (Schindler’s List for instance) they find that it isn’t worth enduring the grim, sad parts of the story. I find this to be an, at best, narrow and, at worst, delusional attitude towards cinema (and art for that matter). The reason we get depressing movies is because life itself can often be depressing. My view is that the purpose of film is not to escape reality but to understand it, whether the film in question is a thoughtful, profound drama or dumb, mindless entertainment. To avoid depressing films because they make you feel sad seems to me like denying that misfortune, sorrow, and tragedy are a part of life. Manchester by the Sea is, to be sure, depressing; it is a story about guilt, grief, and penance. This film made me feel very sad indeed, and I would have it no other way.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a loner living a miserable, solitary existence as a handyman in Massachusetts. He shows an absolute persistence towards living an antisocial life, refusing to be pleasant to an irritating customer, apathetically shrugging off the reprimand this brings him, and showing utter indifference to the advances of a woman at a bar (opting instead to pick a fight with a couple of strangers). He then receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital and rushes back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to learn he has died. While arranging his brother’s funeral, Lee learns that Joe has made him guardian to his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a choice that neither party is on board with. Not wanting to let his brother down, and adamant that Patrick’s estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) should have no part in his upbringing, Lee resolves that the only option is for both of them to move to Boston, an idea that Patrick firmly resists. Through flashbacks of his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his brother and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), we learn more about Lee and of the tragedy that destroyed him, rendering him unable to return to his hometown.
In what is already a good, well-acted film with a marvellous script, the strongest part by far is Affleck’s performance. Through him we see two sides of a wretched individual. In the present he is a broken man, dejected and alone, rejecting each and every opportunity for happiness that comes his way. In the flashbacks we see a cheerful, outgoing man with great affection for his family, perfectly content with his life. The million-dollar question of course is what terrible thing could possibly have happened that led him to this state of being. The remarkable thing about Affleck’s performance is that even though most of his scenes require him to be withdrawn in his emotions, there is always a sense of bottled up rage within that could, and does, come out at a moment’s notice. Lee’s ceaseless commitment towards being unhappy and alone might have proven exasperating if not for the humanity Affleck brings to the role.
For the sake of his brother Lee tries to reach out to Patrick but finds it difficult to connect with him, even in their moments of mourning for the same man. Lee has no patience for his nephew’s teenage problems (most notably his duplicitous love life) and Patrick has no time for his uncle’s antisocial behaviour and depression. Once the source of Lee’s grief is revealed, his masochistic tendencies and ambivalence regarding the care of his only living relative are all the more understandable. The desolate life he lives is one built on the foundations of unimaginable pain and woe, but it is one that he has imposed on himself. Guilt is what has shaped Lee into the man he has become and it is why he must reject every opportunity for happiness that comes his way and why he is grossly unable to care for another person. The most poignant of all the film’s themes is that of forgiveness – forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Lee finds that he cannot accept the forgiveness of that whom he has hurt the most nor can he forgive himself. In his own words, he “can’t beat it”.
Although Manchester by the Sea is a deeply sad film about a man and a young boy in a tragic stage of their lives, Lonergan manages to provide balance with some surprising moments of comedy. At times the humour can be absurdist, as in one scene when Patrick asks Lee to distract the mother of his (second) girlfriend so that they can have sex upstairs, only for Lee to prove himself profoundly incapable of making small talk. Other times it can be deadpan, as when Lee nonchalantly explains to Patrick how he cut his hand. There is a certain authenticity and humanity to be found in these humourous moments that arise in the face of tragedy which is why they don’t feel at all out of place. That is what makes Manchester by the Sea a great film. Its portrait of tragedy is utterly raw and unpretentious and is every bit as powerful and depressing as it ought to be.