I’ve been sitting on writing this review of Manchester By The Sea for about a week now, probably because it’s the kind of film that captures and conjures up the kinds of feelings that are a little hard to talk about, let alone write about. There’s a scene late in the film that pretty brilliantly illustrates this, as the two characters played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams stand there in the harsh New England cold, trying to put into words the inner emotional pain they’ve inflicted on each other, but also the deep understanding of what they’ve both gone through. And they can’t. They’re just standing there, blubbering in the snow, trying to make cohesive sentences, while realizing that some painful subjects are beyond something as simple as mere words.
If you hadn’t guessed already, the painful subject I’m talking about here is grief. Grief that comes out of a brother’s death, as Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) gets the news that his more upstanding brother Joe (Kyle Chandler in another case of an actor playing a character with the same last name) has died. A lot of the movie from there on out deals with a lot of the minutia that comes in the wake of a family member’s death – the visits to the morgue, the dolling out of wills, etc. But most importantly it deals with Lee’s relationship with Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and Lee’s internal struggle over the fact that Joe unexpectedly put it in his will for Lee to become Patrick’s legal guardian.
I don’t want to get into spoilers too much, but another big component of this story’s devastating nature is its use of flashbacks, in which we get to see more of Joe and Lee’s relationship as well as Lee’s own personal struggles. And I think a huge part of this movie’s unblinking humanity is the way it slowly doles out exactly what has made Lee the man he is. Because at first it’s hard not to see him has anything more than a schmuck – he picks random barfights, he doesn’t have much ambition outside of his janitorial job, while he seems extremely reluctant to get involved in any of the family drama that has been placed on his doorstep in the wake of his brother’s death.
But I think if there’s anything this movie proves, it’s that you can never really know a person just based on your own surface-level impressions of them. Everyone has a past, filled with all kinds of messy emotions that have shaped them in ways that you have no way of gleaning just from a conversation with them. And as we get to see Lee’s story and the emotional ramifications of his own personal consequences, we not only learn to understand why he’s such a schmuck, but also learn to feel a deep amount of empathy and forgiveness for his schmuck-iness. Needless to say, it’s the kind of material that easily could’ve been sappy or manipulative in lesser hands, but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan handles this story with the kind of tone and craft that, to use the adjective that a lot of people have been using in regard to Manchester By The Sea, is pretty masterful.
But a big part of this film’s masterful tone is that it has the common sense to not just dwell on the more tragic elements of this story. The film uses lots of little touches of humor while often dwelling on these relatably mundane moments that pop up in between these characters trying to make sense of their circumstances. And for that reason, even despite the story’s heavy subject matter, it’s the kind of film I could see myself watching again at some point. I know many would probably consider this a “one timer”, but I feel like Manchester By The Sea gives plenty to chew on, and maybe even something to learn about finding the light in a big old sea of darkness.