Very few films are brave enough to deal with the tough subject of how to recover from the most terrible of tragedies. Or, whether it’s possible to recover at all. ‘Manchester By The Sea’ takes this challenge on, and the result is an Oscar-worthy film that will mesmerize you.
What happens to people when the worst thing in the world happens to them? What happens when someone just like you has a normal, happy life, and then in one moment, it’s gone? How do you go on living? That is the subject of director Kenneth Lonergan’s beautiful new film, Manchester By The Sea.
The story revolves around Lee Chandler, played with near silent eloquence by Casey Affleck. Lee is a janitor living a spartan life just outside of Boston in a sparsely furnished basement apartment. “Living” is actually an exaggeration. He is existing. Lee takes no pleasure in his life. We later learn that he is subjecting himself to this as a strict form of penitence.
However, his routine of fixing toilets in tenant apartments is interrupted by a phone call. His beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a heart attack. It’s something that Lee must have been dreading ever since his brother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure a few years before. Sadly, by the time Lee drives back to his hometown of Manchester-By-The-Sea, Massachusetts, Joe has passed away and Lee has the sad task of going to pick up his teenage nephew, Patrick, at hockey practice, to deliver the terrible news.
Patrick (Lucas Hedges), 16, has been raised by his loving dad ever since his alcoholic mother, Elise Chandler (Gretchen Mol), abandoned the family several years before. Now, Patrick is on his own and Lee is shocked to find out that he has been designated by his brother to be his nephew’s guardian. Joe has detailed in his will, a plan for Lee to move back permanently to Manchester-By-The-Sea to care for Patrick. And Patrick, a typical 16-year-old with two girlfriends, a crappy rock band and a spot on his school’s hockey team clearly needs to be cared for by Lee.
It’s a strange feeling for Lee — to be needed. The film follows the awkward pair as they grieve for Joe, adjust to the routine of living together and wrestle with Lee’s reluctance to commit to staying with Patrick.
It’s almost halfway through the film that the reason for Lee’s stony silence and emotional distance is revealed and it’s so shocking that it will take your breath away. Lee used to be a husband with a loving wife, Randi, played to perfection by Michelle Williams. He also used to be the devoted father to three young children. Then, the most random, unexpected thing happened and since then, Lee has been unable to allow himself to stop grieving. He refuses to take any pleasure in living.
It’s the tug of war between his guilt-stricken resistance to ‘feeling’ and Patrick’s desperate need for him to be a surrogate father that propels the film and propels Lee. Living back in Manchester-By-The-Sea where Lee had led his formerly happy life is daily torture for the janitor. The scenes with Randi, who he is forced to see again, are so emotionally intense, you’ll have a hard time breathing while you watch.
Also, riveting are the tiny, tiny signs of emotional thawing that Lee finally begins to experience towards the end of the film. Casey Affleck is so submerged within Lee’s spiritually crippled character, that it was a shock to see him animated in a panel at a Peggy Siegal lunch after an NYC screening of the film. He joked that the best part of shooting the movie in Massachusetts was that he got to stay with his mom every night because she lived nearby.
As for why director Lonergan chose to tackle such a tough subject, he explained, “I wanted to explore unimaginable grief because we always hear about such things and wonder how people get through. People do get through and move emotionally in the course of five years.” In this film, “the main character is nudged a little forward through his nephew who loves him and needs him,” he added.
While the subject matter of Manchester By The Sea sounds grim, the film in fact is filled with humor. As Lonergan points out — no matter how unimaginably tragic a situation and how deep the grief, life doesn’t stop and and the living have a way of refusing to allow their loved ones to give up on themselves.
You should see Manchester By The Sea, which could be the very best film of the year. You’ll be glad that you did. Let me know what you think!