Manchester by the Sea
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
Rated: R for language throughout and some sexual content
2 hrs. 17 mins.
For writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is tied to both its characters and the New England seasons. They interact with each other as if they were all part of the same Chandler family, and this I think is the key to understanding the film as a whole. If you’re expecting a typical arc of drama and resolution, forget it. There is much drama here, and a small bit of resolution, but it rises and falls with the weather, begins and ends with the sea.
The Chandler family has strong roots in Manchester, Massachusetts. Older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is a fisherman. He is the strong one in a family that always seems to teeter on the brink of self-destruction. The younger, more reckless brother, Lee (Casey Affleck), comes to rely on Joe to keep him moving forward.
When Joe dies of congestive heart failure, Lee’s already troubled world falls into absolute numbness. Even more disconcerting, his brother has inexplicably assigned Lee to be the guardian of his 15-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a strong-willed young man who doesn’t welcome Lee’s outside interference or his invitation to move him back to Boston.
Lee is dead inside. He lives a dismal life as a maintenance man in a low-rent section of Boston. When he picks up the call regarding his dead brother, he must summon his courage to go home and take care of Joe’s affairs. The result is conflict on all sides. Lee must do what he can’t, and being dead to the world, he can’t do what he must.
Lonergan has found a setting and a story in which the audience must embrace the emotional details and patiently let those details follow their own path. It’s not an easy film to watch, but the craftsmanship, from the writing to the directing, is unmistakable; and the raw emotional honesty that goes with loss and grief is a rare commodity in modern filmmaking. In short, Lonergan forces you to look at real people, real responses, the slow ebb and flow of life as it pounds at the soul and leaves large dents that can be lived with but not repaired.
But Lonergan has another aim in mind. What exactly is manhood? Chandler and Affleck give us one picture of that perplexing question. In their world, they drink, fight and bounce off each other in a ritual dance that creates male bonding. Then, in times of crisis, they push one another to hold tight to their better selves.
For example, Lee supports his brother even when Joe’s family life crumbles. After Lee loses his wife and children, Joe forces his brother to go buy furniture for his dismal Boston apartment. They curse and swear at each other, but in their world, this is love. Lonergan finds both the pathos and humor in a man’s world.
Humor? Yes, in a dark, sophisticated way, there is humor here, particularly in the discourse between Lee and Patrick. They’re pushing each other’s buttons because, in the male world, that’s what you learn to do to survive. Humor is the mediator. If you’re not funny, you’re dead.
This movie is not entertaining in the typical sense of the word, and certainly not driven by high drama. This is a film about the weight of death. Yet death is also life. Death is a part of living with the seasons.
After death, the ground is cold, too cold to accept a grave. At some point, however, grief relents, bodies are buried, everyone moves on. Returning to the sea, Lee and Patrick throw in their lines and continue to fish. Yes, they have changed, but life in all its raggedness and beauty flows on and each must continue to move with the tides. Sit and watch their lines. Wait and see what happens next.