Forty-five minutes into ‘Manchester by the Sea’, I was tempted to switch movies. With the plot progressing at a glacial pace and Casey Affleck’s unexplained stoic expression that never changed, I wondered how on Earth he got an Oscar for this performance.
But I held on as part of my resolution to finish all books and movies I begin with. And while the resolve has a tendency to confirm my initial gut that continuing just isn’t worth it, this time it broke pattern and paid off.
I don’t know how to describe this film, which I guess is a true measure of a director’s success (Kenneth Lonergan). The story itself is simple enough and can be condensed into two lines : After the death of Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler), his brother Lee (Casey Affleck) is entrusted with guardianship of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) in the traditional fishing town- Manchester by the Sea. Lee is forced to come to terms with this responsibility whilst dealing with the weight of his past.
The muted tones of the film set the mood ; sheets of fresh white snow cutting through the screen, shimmering moon-lit creeks, dark brown skeletons of trees lining the roads, neat pastel houses in a clean town and of course, the dancing blues of the sea and sky. Even the winter clothes worn never stand out and the most color you’ll see are noses pink and red from the cold. The restrained soundtrack, a mixture of a cappella, violins, cello and delicate piano ,complements the scenery marvelously. Main theme song ‘Manchester by the Sea chorale’ tugs at you hard enough for you to feel the wintry cold and pain of bereavement.
Lee carries his past with him. The story moves along slowly, building it to the moment that finally grips you when you discover the source of his pain. Your heart breaks a little, to see a man who has mustered the courage to choose to live and yet not enough to forgive himself. And now you have a purpose to invest yourself in the film with the hope that now, with this opportunity to care for his nephew, Lee will finally find peace and move on.
Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is just plain adorable. He breaks down in the sweetest, heart-melting way; not in the knowing that his father is dead and gone forever, but in discovering that his father’s body will be kept in a freezer. There’s a scene when he opens the freezer and packets of chicken fall out and he cries as he stuffs them back in. I can’t tell you what that scene did to me. Here was a boy who up to that point was busy rebelling against his uncle, cheating on two girls, being an absolute dick to the drummer in his band. I knew he would cry at some point and I waited for it, but this streak of vulnerability brought out by a freezer caught me by surprise.
Then there’s the bond between uncle and nephew; one filled with swear words, too much honesty and an un-fuzzy warmth. We see Patrick fighting his uncle about not wanting to move to Boston with him. “You’re a janitor in Boston. I’m sure there are plenty of clogged toilets out here for you.”, Patrick tells him. And then later when the same boy meets his recovering alcoholic mother who still isn’t adult enough to accept the responsibility of a son and realizes that his uncle was right all along and bitterly tells him, “You just can’t wait to get rid of me.” Patrick’s swinging emotions are real and raw. And for me he is a hero in his own way, on the verge of manhood, loving his boat and desperate to steer his fate.
The continuous shift in story-line between past and present is managed well without being a jarring confusion. We see a younger Lee who laughs and loves his beer. The flashbacks show his relationship with his then wife Randy (Michelle Williams) and his brother Joe. Surprisingly, the scene that made me cry was when Jo visits Lee’s dingy studio apartment in Boston and tells him he needs furniture. Lee refuses but Joe stands tall, looking around at the blank space filled with nothing but cardboard boxes and with the authority of an older brother who will have his way says, “Let’s go.” Later they unwrap a bulky sofa-set together. Trust me, watch this scene closely and you’ll know why I love it
‘Manchester by the Sea’ reels you in with the hope for Lee’s redemption. The two hours and fifteen minutes of its length all you’re waiting and wishing for is for him to move on and through caring for Patrick, discover new meaning in existing and a sort of ‘happily ever after’ for himself. But Lonergan doesn’t give us that. All we get is Lee telling Patrick in the end, “I just can’t beat it.” The ‘it’ being a proverbial mountain of woe he carries within himself, a dark cloud that will never drain and follows him around everywhere, a cluster of sadness frozen in time.
It’s refreshing to watch a movie that is sad and comforting. Not all demons can be beaten, but that doesn’t stop us from living. Therein lies the beauty of the ‘Manchester by the Sea’, the bundled little twists that assure you that you are not going to get a happy ending, but a real one.