Manchester by the Sea explores how it feels to lose someone and the unexpected consequences following their death. The film examines these issues on multiple levels through the eyes and hearts of everyone involved. Lee Chandler played by Casey Affleck, the younger brother of New England fisherman, Joe Chandler played by Kyle Chandler, is devastated by the loss of his older brother to cancer. Lee idealizes his older brother and would do anything for him. However, when it turns out that Lee was appointed as the guardian of Kyle’s only son, Patrick, Lee is shocked and fearful of taking on that role and what it would mean to him and his life.
At the opening of the film, we see Lee as a reliable handyman living in the city, doing the grunt work of snaking out toilets and fixing problems for his boss who has lots of units to maintain. It is the thankless work that nobody wants to do. In addition, Lee is subjected to people who often are crazy or simply not that smart. Often Lee has to listen to their problems and complaints all the while keeping to himself and not expressing his frustration with the silly demands and people who he helps. You can see that Lee is tightly and fiercely fighting to keep his emotions inside and only speaks when he absolutely has to. It’s not a great job and he knows it. His only outlet seems to be when he goes drinking at the local pub but when he drinks his anger erupts and causes him more problems. Something is smoldering below the surface but he does nothing to release it except drink at night.
When Lee hears that his older brother Joe is in the hospital and later passes away, Lee wants to take care of the arrangements but never dreams that Joe has selected him as the person to take his only son under his wing. Lee doesn’t want it at all. Patrick, Kyle’s son, played by Lucas Hedges, is a typical teenager. He has his life to deal with including the hockey team, his girlfriends and school. He doesn’t seem to grasp at first that his father is gone as maybe it hasn’t hit him yet. He doesn’t want to live his life somewhere else and Lee doesn’t want to move back home. So there is a stand off while they try to figure out what to do.
The film is a deep and emotionally wrought examination of what happens when someone dies, the outcome and impact on the lives of those around you and how it can alter trajectories of life profoundly.
Casey Affleck plays Lee with bottled up emotions that are just below the surface. The film is powerful because it makes you want to reason with Lee, to reach out and tell him it will be okay, to help him. But he is unreachable, not just because he’s a fictional character on a screen, but because somewhere and for some reason he refuses to let anyone help him or to open up.
Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s former wife. She also has difficulty in moving on. She is a rare presence in the film, at once beautiful and fragile, yet stronger perhaps than Lee in some ways.
Manchester by the Sea is filmed with muted colors of the winters of New England. The scenes on the sea in Joe’s family fishing boat are beautiful and show why people want to live in that part of the world. The story on one level reaches all of us as a common humanity and speaks to what is important in life. It reaches out to what we value and the journey of life itself as an unexpected ride where we know not where it will go.
Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay is perfect. There are no extra words. Emotions fill the screen through the interactions between the characters. As a director, Lonergan could have taken this film in many directions. He kept it raw and believable.
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