Kenneth Lonergan’s writing and direction is all about detail: it’s all about the small, sometimes even unimportant things in life. It’s a line of suburban homes with little activity in the streets, it’s a line of boats waiting to be taken to the ocean, it’s an empty frame that looks out into the horizon time after time, wanting to catch a break from the sorrow that it’s meant to capture.
I can’t say more than the fact that the simplicity of Manchester by the Sea is rooted in the protagonist being a janitor, who works in a building in Boston and lives in a basement room, shovels snow, talks back to people and is usually rude to his customers.
But we don’t know why he is like this, everyone wonders, why he is so angry? There is this overall sense of sadness and moroseness that he carries with him constantly. Right at the start of the film he ends up at a bar and before the evening is done, goes over to two guys and lands punches on their faces, accusing them of staring at him. But we don’t know why.
What was interesting to watch was that for close to twenty minutes, this is all we see. The character Lee Chandler (played brilliantly by Casey Affleck) does this and we keep wondering why. Finally, Act 1 gets its story point when Lee gets a call that his older brother has had a heart attack. The older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who lives in Manchester, was suffering from a conjunctive heart condition and thus this heart attack was impending. The death of his brother brings Lee back to Manchester and everything he supposedly left behind is shoved back in his face piece by piece.
Throughout the film and even in the dramatic moments of the narrative, Lonergan uses the camera to capture and stay with his characters, it’s like offering to make us a part of their quiet and expressed sorrow. He lets us watch the passive surroundings, that seem detached from the suffering characters inhabiting them. We get glimpses of the past with sporadic flashbacks of Lee’s life, as this irresponsible, oftentimes drunk guy who spends time on his brother’s boat and at home playing pool with his buddies. His three kids are left to his wife (Michelle Williams) to care for. Now that his brother is dead, he is left with the care of his nephew, the sixteen-year-old Patrick. The moment the lawyer tells him that he is the appointed guardian of the teenager, we finally have the revelation.
The second half of the film is the slow and tumultuous bonding between Lee and Patrick. As uncle and nephew begin to find a way to acknowledge commonalities in their shared loss, Lee tries to keep it together. With the past haunting him and with the need to show empathy to a haughty, oftentimes selfish teenager (who is perhaps merely masking his mourning through teenage tantrums), Lee still wants to do it right by his brother. But at the heart of all this is a genuine, familial connection between Lee and Patrick. They both recognize that the struggle is their shared reality. They yell and lash out at each other, they hug and sob together, but they know that to heal time just needs to be. If Casey Affleck is the film, then actor Lucas Hedges playing Patrick is the stimulant that makes him thrive.
My favourite scene in the film is when Lee comes face to face with his ex-wife Williams, who is now remarried and a recent mother (again). As she stands before him apologizing for the hateful things she said to him, owing to what happened to their family, which she blamed Lee for in the beginning, the both of them breakdown. Their pain stings in the depths of your soul, because finally, after ninety minutes of the film, you are no longer an audience, you are sharing their tragedy with them and doing the only thing you can when it hurts, cry and walk away.
This was the perfect example of a film where tragedy grows on you and even after you realize what caused it, what happened, mid-way through the film, your suffering only progressively hurts more. It’s human fragility at its best.
Manchester by the Sea is now playing in theatres.