By Ben Thumm (Chicago, IL, USA)
Pain. Loss. Death. These are all things that we endure throughout the duration of our lives. How we deal with each aspect is entirely different from person to person. Some people are able to handle it better than others. Some have a difficult time dealing with the grief and reality of the events that have taken place. Manchester by the Sea is a film that is tackles each of these elements which have been so taxing on its’ central characters and exuberates raw emotion as well as sincerity.
Written and directed by Keith Lonergan, he immediately introduces us to the film’s main character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). The opening scene take us back and forth between present day and a cherished memory on his brother Joe’s fishing boat along with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Between this flashback and the present day, it is clear that Lee is a completely different man from who he was on the boat. Back then he seemed like a charismatic uncle compared to the present day quiet, emotionally reserved handyman/janitor in Boston. We get acquainted with Lee as we are taken through his various jobs on a day to day basis.
This includes anything from plumbing, taking out the trash or water leaks of apartment complexes. Right from the get-go, Lee is a very unsociable character in which the way he converses with the tenants. He may know what he is talking about to them but it’s very evident that he has no desire to talk to anyone or care about the work he’s doing. Affleck has been getting all sorts of praise since this debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, so my personal expectations for his performance were very high. Probably too high. But he truly is phenomenal throughout the entire film. He really shines when he is able to fully embrace who his character really is. Characterized by his short facial expressions, body language and monotone delivery of dialogue. Out of the blue, Lee is forced to rush back to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts because of one life changing phone call.
After an hour and a half drive, Lee finally makes it to the hospital but it’s too late. Joe has passed away from a heart condition that has plagued him over the past few years. Lee does his best to control his emotions and not show too much but it’s obvious that he’s devastated. He’s able to recall the first time Joe had an episode and was diagnosed with this heart condition that nagged him with too many hospital visits to count. From here on out Lonergan paces the audience with flashbacks into the past life of Lee when he was a father of three and a husband to his then wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). The flashbacks aren’t obviously the most original storytelling device, but it allows us to go deep in to Lee’s tragic past to fully get us acquainted with who he was and who he has become.
Patrick comes into the picture as the popular high school hockey player that has a close group of friends as well as two girlfriends – of course. After his father’s death and no mother to be found due to her past alcoholism, he is left in the hands of his uncle Lee for an extended period of time. Joe’s will detailed that Lee be his legal guardian until he is of age. Lee doesn’t take the news too well and triggers the key flashback that led to the downward spiral of his life. It’s one of the most heartbreaking sequences of any film this year.
It’s hard to even process the chain of events because no one should ever have to experience what Lee went through as well as the anguish and guilt he has to live with for the rest of his life. Lee and Patrick are left with each other to deal with their losses and overcome their grief together. Lonergan is able to let both of these actors do their part and have it come natural to them. There is actually some light humor infused into their dialogue and relationship which really makes their character arcs much more enjoyable and relatable. Michelle Williams (Randi) doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time but it would be a travesty to not point out her brilliance. One scene in particular towards the end with Lee is Oscar worthy in itself.
Now that awards season is about to be in full swing, Manchester by the Sea is a film that is going to be talked about a lot for its’ performances as well as the volumes it speaks on grief and the raw emotions of dealing with that grief. A film that is very heavy on its’ characters can feel drawn out at times, but even with a run time of 137 minutes not one scene or conversation feels unnecessary. In the end, what we do feel is the emotional resonance for these characters and their journeys to overcome affliction.
Lee Chandler: If you could take one guy on an island with you and you knew you’d be safe because he was the best man, that he was going to keep you happy, if it was between me and your father who would take?
Young Patrick: My daddy.
Lee Chandler: I don’t think you’re wrong about that.
Lee Chandler: What happened to my brother?