Manchester By The Sea is a stunning, mournful film about a man’s struggle between honouring his brother’s wishes and protecting himself from his awful past.
Everyone deals with loss differently. For some it’s a long, messy process that involves repression, depression and compartmentalisation, while others somehow manage to navigate traumatic waters relatively calmly. Some people get over loss of loved ones, others may or may not. We can’t see the future, we can only feel our suffering in the moment and analyse it in the past.
Kenneth Lonergan (writer/director of Margaret and You Can Count on Me) captures this melancholy perfectly. Manchester By The Sea is a painful mix of regret, sadness and the incredible struggle between doing the right thing and self-preservation. It wrestles with Aristotelian tragedy and the need for catharsis in such a low-key manner that the battle scars only become evident towards the end of the film.
Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor in Boston, working four buildings, not saying much – as if every word takes a huge amount of effort or causes immense pain. He likes to get drunk and fight before passing out in his tiny room, holding one last bottle of beer. It’s a terribly sorry existence and one that could only ever be self-imposed – Lee is clearly punishing himself for something.
One day his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, making his presence felt through flashbacks) dies and Lee has to return to his titular hometown, a tiny fishing community, and deal with everything from funeral arrangements to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), of whom he has just been made legal guardian. Lee insists that Patrick move in with him in Boston, much to Patrick’s horror. He can’t understand why Lee, a janitor with no ties to anything, refuses to relocate back to Manchester, where Patrick has built his life,; an incredibly popular, nice life. Yet Lee is insistent. He cannot bear to stay in Manchester-by-the-sea. What has happened that is so awful?
The answer comes through flashbacks. They explain how Lee became this gaunt, hollow depressed figure before us, but what makes the flashbacks so intelligent and poignant is that their primary function is not exposition but emotion – they intensify the pain Lee feels when he returns to Manchester. Memories, horrible recollections come flooding back involuntarily and abruptly. Sad recollections force their way into his mind when he is happy and horrific ones kick him down when he’s already at his worst. They suggest that Lee’s return didn’t open old wounds; he never let them heal in the first place.
Here the Manchester By The Sea subverts the tragedy format. Once Lee’s trauma is explained the film doesn’t run off to find a resolution, instead it does the opposite, it focuses, unflinchingly, on Lee’s pain – his struggle; his attempts to overcome it for his nephew. If he can just beat his tragedy and depression, he can make sure Patrick gets to stay where he grew up. Lonergan doesn’t pull any punches and nor does Affleck, as the film wears on and the small Manchester community wears him down, his carapace cracks and we see a broken man. So broken that perhaps he and his nephew don’t really stand a chance. Perhaps they never did.
For a film with such a sad premise and such mournful, moving performances, there is also humour. From Lee asking a family friend, George (C.J Wilson), to look after Patrick to get the reply “We’ve already got a houseful. We’re trying to lose kids at this point”, or Michelle Williams’ unconscious character being put into an ambulance only to be hindered four times by the stretcher collapsing – levity appears in places where it’s least expected. Lonergan is a masterful manipulator of humour, bending it to his will and using it for the most tragic effects. The hardest tears come moments after the loudest laughs.
Manchester By The Sea is a stunning, elegiac portrait of a man broken by his past, struggling to piece himself together enough to save his family. Its power lies not in his journey, but just where the hell Lee will end up and who will be there with him. 4/5