This is a truly sad film.
The protagonist of Manchester by the Sea is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), whose story is told partly in flashbacks, meaning that you come to gradually understand more of what is happening in the present as more information from the past is revealed.
Chandler, from Manchester, Massachusetts (or at least what I thought was Manchester, but now I see on Google Maps its actual name is Manchester-by-the-Sea), now lives an hour or two away in the Boston area, where he is a janitor.
Early in the film, his brother Joe, who operates a business in Manchester (I’ll just call it that for short, as I’m sure almost everyone does in real life) and with whom Lee evidently has a close and positive relationship, dies. Lee returns to Manchester to, among other things, look after Joe’s 16 year old son Patrick temporarily. He’s surprised to learn, though, that it may not be temporary, according to the provisions of Joe’s will. This proposed permanency is something about which he has decidedly mixed feelings.
As I say, the movie parcels out tidbits of understanding about the characters and their relationships as it goes back and forth between present events and flashbacks. For one thing, we learn what happened to Joe’s marriage, why he was a single parent. We also find out that Lee too had a wife and kids. We see people in Manchester mutter about Lee as if he is some significant local figure from the past—an accomplished high school athlete perhaps?—and eventually find out what that’s all about.
One of the main things we gradually gain insight into is why Lee is the peculiar way he is. He is an extremely taciturn fellow. He is accused of being angry and disrespectful toward people at work, though his losses of temper seem pretty mild; he’s really more grimly laconic than hotheaded. Then again, he does occasionally initiate barroom brawls for seemingly little or no reason.
Speaking of which, he’s a drinker, though it’s not clear initially if he’s a hard core alcoholic or more of a typical, run-of-the-mill, working class social drinker.
More than once in the film a woman makes her interest in him obvious, but he is largely unresponsive each time.
It’s not a matter of being shy. On the whole he gives the appearance of someone who is largely emotionally dead inside. He has some ability, sometimes, to behave responsibly and appropriately, and he makes at least some effort to do what’s right in terms of his family relationships and such, but it’s all in a kind of formal, dutiful way, with little or no outward signs of warmth, enthusiasm, etc.
Patrick, by the way, is shown being dropped off at middle school, which makes no sense. Surely at 16 he’s not in middle school. There’s nothing about him to make you think he has flunked multiple grades, certainly. And the two hotties he’s screwing absolutely don’t look like middle schoolers, not with the figure on that first one especially. (I looked it up, and one of the actresses was 17-18 when the movie was filmed, and the other was 23-24.)
Certainly the deeper it gets into Manchester by the Sea and the more we learn, the better we can understand Lee’s perpetual glumness. He, and in different ways many of these other characters as well, have been beaten up by life, to put it mildly.
The sadness of the movie just gets piled higher and higher. There’s irresponsible parenting, broken marriages, tragic accidental death, death by disease, family conflict, and on and on. There’s anger, grief, and overwhelming guilt.
A movie that puts its characters through so much can go either way. It runs a serious risk of being insufferably maudlin. Then again, if it’s able to pull off what it’s trying to do, the results can be truly emotionally powerful and moving.
Obviously we’re talking about very subjective reactions here, and I could see plenty of viewers reacting either way to Manchester by the Sea, but for me it largely works. If I want to nitpick, it maybe doesn’t hit just the right note every moment (e.g., the way it uses Albinoni’s Adagio is borderline for me; it kind of works, but it also feels just a little manipulative and over the top), but for the most part I got caught up in it and felt like it reached me at a deep level.
It’s one of those rare films that had me in a pensive mood, almost a trance, leaving the theater, contemplating my own life and relationships, and feeling a sort of urgency to be an emotionally deeper person and deal with life and people in a healthier way.
Why? Why does Manchester by the Sea largely “work,” at least for me?
I’m not sure how much of that I can really articulate, and again it’s largely subjective, but I’ll mention what happens to come to mind in response to this question.
For one thing, the acting is excellent. Affleck is totally believable in his portrayal of a traumatized person who has retreated into a shell while externally performing the necessary functions of life robotically. Michelle Williams is dead on in her portrayal of his wife, who is affected differently by and reacts differently to trauma. Lucas Hedges as Patrick seems much more like a real teenager—including in his physical gangliness, that sense that he hasn’t fully grown into his body or settled into just how he’s supposed to hold himself and to move—than do most movie teenagers.
But I’m sure it’s the writing and dialogue too, and not just the acting, that makes it all seem real, and makes it so emotionally effective. One moment that sticks in my mind is when Chandler, in a conversation with his ex-wife late in the movie, mutters in explanation of why he can’t respond to her the way she seems to want: “There’s nothin’ there.” (That whole exchange, which is Williams’s finest scene, is one of the hardest hitting in the film.) It’s a remark that in context can be interpreted in multiple, related, ways, and I suspect there’s some truth in all the interpretations.
As I say, it’s risky for a film to pile on this much negativity, trauma, and damaged people. If it overdoes the redemption, growth, recovery, etc.—i.e., if it turns out it was only showing us all the adversity in order to set up an inspiring tale of how it was overcome—it can be a disappointingly clichéd, typical Hollywood story. If it’s unrelentingly dark, then it can be just depressing to no apparent purpose. (Not that all movies of those types are bad. I’ve seen some of each, especially the first, “feel-good” type, that I rate favorably.)
But what I appreciate maybe as much as anything about Manchester by the Sea is the fact that it skillfully steers between these extremes. It’s mostly pain, but then there are little bits of healing, compassion, healthy communication, etc. Not a lot—this isn’t “The uplifting story of a man driven into a shell by trauma, who experiences a wondrous emotional recovery when given the unexpected opportunity to shepherd his teenage nephew through his own period of grief!,” at least not to more than a very modest degree—but enough to trigger complex, mixed emotions.
Manchester by the Sea is one of the more intense movies I’ve seen in a while. Not in the sense of a fast-paced, adrenalin-filled, action movie where there’s a huge amount going on, and it’s all flying at you to where you really have to focus and get into it to keep up with it all—it’s mostly, in fact, of a quite languid pace—but in the sense of emotional intensity.
It’s cumulative. While it definitely has its arresting moments, it’s the kind of movie that hits hardest when you can think back and contemplate it as a whole. Its sum is greater than its parts, in terms of emotional intensity.