What does grief do to a person? What kinds of grief can a person get over and can the sheer amount of it shatter you forever? This is a question that Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea attempts to explore, without ever sacrificing the acknowledgment that life continues to move in the face of unimaginable grief, and it’s up to each of us whether we choose to deal with our personal tragedies or allow them to cripple us.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man who lives and works as a janitor in Boston, who appears to move through his life efficiently enough, but is missing a lot in the appreciation of it. He’s a quiet, somber man who doesn’t quite seem plugged in to every day events- his annoying tenants only vaguely irritate him or he ignores them completely, the same with women who hit on him in the bars that he frequents every night, starting the occasional brawl that seems to ease his restlessness. Then, a tragedy occurs when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly after a longtime struggle with a congenital heart disease, leaving his 16-year-old son Patrick in Lee’s care, along with a newly fixed income on the instructions that Lee come back home to Manchester, move in with Patrick and become his guardian.
Lee has long had a strong relationship with his nephew (19-year-old Lucas Hedges) and immediately returns to take care of him in the wake of Joe’s death, but the sensible and rational steps the ever practical Joe has taken to ensure Patrick and Lee’s new existence become a source of existential burden for Lee, and one he may be already too broken to bear. There are two levels of grief that are explored in Lonergan’s layered screenplay- the first involving Joe’s death, which sets events in motion and is explained in flashbacks that explore the depths of the brother’s relationship and the familial dynamic between nephew and son, a time in Lee’s life where he was an entirely different man who was on course for an entirely different future. Joe’s death is a sad but expected event, one that instantly impacts the lives of both Lee and Patrick, but over the course of the film, the source of Lee’s real burden, the one he carries every day, every minute of his life, is revealed in a brutally devastating sequence that sheds light on every manner of his being, from his attitude to the way he carries himself, to his interactions with every single person in his orbit.
The weight Lee shoulders is one that Joe has posthumously tried to lighten by imposing a new and potentially distracting responsibility on his younger brother, but the question remains whether Lee will accept this challenge, or embrace it as the chance for salvation that it could very well be. He is afforded every opportunity by the genuine neediness his teenage nephew directs towards him, a relationship that is the core of the film, as newcomer Hedges is funny, natural and winning in a role that’s the most central one next to Affleck’s. The bond between the two is real and quickly seized upon by Patrick, who longs for paternal guidance in the wake of his father’s death, but the stubborn and shattered life Lee lives is one he is both unable and unwilling to give up, for various reasons that will leave you pondering the meaning and the sense of the actions he has taken. The character drama is expertly acted, written and felt in the details, from the place and setting of one Massachusetts town to the next, to the relationships between family members, friends and acquaintances anyone can relate to. There’s no small amount of humor in the movie, as all life goes on even if you can’t imagine it doing so, but Casey Affleck threads that fine line between complete brokenness and continued survival. He threads it neatly but does not quite overcome it, which is the brilliance of his convincing and empathetic performance, in a part that you may find frustrating as you begin to realize what he’s doing to himself and why he’s doing it, but are powerless to help in any way, much like the many observers in Lee’s life, including his ex-wife Randi, played by Michelle Williams in a small but pivotal and ultimately revealing role.
Life comes at you hard and fast, with tiny decisions that leave long lasting and sometimes irreparable damage. This movie is one of the smartest and most compassionate films to ever deal with one’s ability or inability to move past the things that will change you forever, and is brave enough to leave the audience with no comforting answers, even as it raises some of the most difficult of all questions. Guilt can be damning and unforgiving, and the self-flagellation it requires to keep feeding itself can ruin those with otherwise promising lives to live. In the end, that may be the most tragic thing of all.
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