Lee Chandler is a man who is literally a hollow individual who spends his entire life going through the motions. He works a hard job as a superintendent for four apartment buildings, gets little to no respect, and falls asleep every night in his basement hole in front of his television. On rare occasions he stops by his local bar to get drunk and engage in fist fights with locals. He may not have died the night his house burned down with his children in it, but he might as well be in his grave. Chandler isn’t a man who has given up any hope of a happy life, but a man who has given up on himself and only himself. “Manchester by the Sea” has every opportunity to be a sickly sweet sitcom about a man learning to live again thanks to his nephew. Until the very end, though, director Kenneth Lonergan’s drama is a somber, incredibly compelling masterpiece that confronts guilt, grief, and the difficulty of dealing with losing someone we loved.
Director-writer Lonergan’s masterpiece is the story of two men, one of whom hasn’t finished grieving the past, while the other isn’t quite aware that he’s grieving yet. Casey Affleck gives one of the best performances of his career as Lee, the man who thrives on living an existence that’s numb, cold, and bereft of any stimuli. In many ways he’s submitted himself to exile, doomed to wallow in place that’s more a dead end than beacon of life. When he finds out his older brother Joe died suddenly of a heart attack, it falls upon Lee to go to Manchester to seal his brother’s affairs, whether he wants to or not. Lee’s ability to respond to every situation with a despondent glare doesn’t help his ability to cope with loss, as he basically sleep walks through every emotional stage of death before our eyes.
From learning about how Lee died, right down to viewing his body in a morgue, he can barely evoke a normal response to what’s occurred. Lee isn’t a bad man by nature, he’s just a man who has no idea how to restart his life, and director-writer Lonergan is very skilled in bringing us in to very engrossing flashbacks. They act as very important and often emotional plot elements that convey how Lee’s death was inevitable, right down to the gut wrenching night where Lee lost all will to allow himself forgiveness. Through and through Lee simply can’t forgive himself or forget, so he displays a fascinating dichotomy off of his nephew Patrick. While Lee takes every opportunity to avoid finding happiness or pleasure, Patrick is intent on savoring his youth right before the stark reality of being an adult begins to present itself. Lucas Hedges and Affleck are absolutely enormous in their performances, playing beautifully off of one another as man forced in to one another’s life, and tasked with battling each other to tooth and nail about their future.
“Manchester by the Sea” is a dramatic master work about grief, loss, and how death can often destroy every bit of appreciation for life we once had. The opening flashbacks are a stark contrast to the future flashbacks that begin as light hearted familial experiences and slowly devolve in to the deterioration of a unit in the face of life’s sense of unfairness. Lonergan’s character study never opts for the easy way out with sudden realizations, or breakthroughs with certain characters. He sticks true to his exploration of grief, allowing at least, for a glimmer of hope in the finale that is a mere implication of change for the better, but not an absolute guarantee that the people we’ve met will fare well in the remainder of their lives.