Grief and despair are so often chronicled by film and television because it’s an easy way to elicit emotions in characters and thus trigger a reaction in the audience. Nowadays we’re so brainwashed into what we think this means when watching it portrayed in media where everything has to be overdramatized to further stress a point to make sure its intent is 100% coming across. Nine times out of ten, in real life, things aren’t that cut and dry and it isn’t so easy to explain motivations behind actions and reasons behind emotions. Manchester By The Sea knows all of this and infuses it into every scene, making every frame of the film resonate in its real world fidelity.
Manchester By The Sea is a raw nerve of a film led by Case Affleck’s frayed end. Casey Affleck is a mind-blowingly good actor who plays sullen and downtrodden like it’s his life’s work (I guess because it pretty much is). Somehow after all this time and after amazing performance after amazing performance it still feels like Affleck is undervalued, under-appreciated and underrated, but with this latest performance he aims to put all that in the past.
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a tired of life janitor doing the minimum to get by, who’s forced back into his old life and former town after his brother dies and leaves custody of his son to Lee. As the film unfolds you see exactly why Lee had such a hard break from his former life, a mind-numbing tragedy that leaves Lee barely able to function mentally at times and leaves him in a pseudo state of paralyzed despair. Of course Lee and his nephew Patrick have different ideas on how this guardianship thing will work out, with Lee wanting to cut bait from town as soon as possible and bring Patrick back to Boston, but with Patrick not wanting to leave town. We’ve seen this story thousands of times before, two opposing forces with opposite goals who of course will come together in the end in solid unity, expect that doesn’t happen here, because Manchester By The Sea doesn’t do things how movies typically do. Try as he might, Lee is too crippled by his former life, the memories, his walking tragic reminder of an ex-wife, to competently give Patrick the life and parenting that a teenager needs. Instead, Patrick stays in Manchester-by-the-sea (the town its set in and obviously the film is named after) and Lee goes back to his old life. Even back in Boston with the small tethers of his previous life rattling around in his brain, it’s too much for him to handle and something he can’t, and won’t, let be inflicted on another person.
Nothing wraps up neatly in the film, as most things don’t in real life, there’s no grand reunions, reconciliations, understandings or rekindling of relationships, it’s just a reshuffling of the deck. Kenneth Lonergan directs an open wound of a film that is expertly prodded by the damaged souls of Affleck as Lee, Michelle Williams as his ex-wife and Lucas Hedges as Patrick. It’s a film that isn’t interested in how things have been done, but in how things are done, no matter how sloppy, messy and anticlimactic it might be, because that’s where true raw emotion is found, in the places that people don’t want to look.