Reviewing Movies: Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck (The Finest Hours, Interstellar, Gone Baby Gone) is, hands down, one of the finest actors of our day -- among some of the finest actors to have ever graced the big screen. In Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York, You Can Count on Me), Lee Chandler's (Affleck) brother dies and he inherits not necessarily money but a nephew. Of course, the most simple of stories maintain some of the more complex details regarding characters, and Manchester is rife with multifaceted individuals wrestling with real-life issues such as tragedy, selfish- and selflessness, respect, depression, hopelessness, insecurity, vulnerability, stubbornness and empathy.

My dear friend, Mrs. Pat, warned me not to see this movie when I was experiencing severe depression. I am grateful that she did, because this movie is, as she confesses, bleak, and would have only served to fuel my depressed state. Why is it so bleak? Well, consider one incidence, when Lee, at approximately three in the morning, after his wife makes him kick out his drunk friends, decides to go out to the store for more beer. The main floor, where his three children sleep, is cold so he puts two logs in the fireplace.

He is still drunk so he decides to walk to the store -- a twenty-minute walk there and a twenty-minute walk back. Half-way to the store he wonders if he closed the screen on the fireplace but he thinks it will be alright. Upon returning from the store, however, he discovers his house is on fire. His wife survives. His three children die. She cannot even look at him in the eyes, to say nothing of allow him to touch her, or hold or comfort her. Explaining the events to the police, he is released, upon which he manages to grab the gun of a cop and attempts to shoot himself in the head. His life is deemed contemptible.

I have enough confidence to suggest that any humor in this movie is either unintentional or very cleverly disguised. When Lee's teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Kill the Messenger, The Zero Theorem, Moonrise Kingdom), visits the dead body of his father, he walks into the room, sees the body, says, "Yep. Okay. Thank you," and walks out of the room within seconds. There is an underlying dark humor in his response; much in the same way that his misunderstanding of a proper response to his uncle in agreeing to see the body; as well as being the referee between his uncle and a passing citizen criticizing Lee's "parenting skills." Perhaps I am merely searching for lighter moments intentionally due to the heavy material being portrayed. But can anyone blame me for the attempt?

You have to pay attention to details in this movie in order to more fully appreciate the tone, the intent, even the spoken and non-spoken narrative. From the subtle glances of the eyes, to particular looks in the faces, and especially to the manner in which New Englanders communicate with one another. Lee, due to too many tragic circumstances, is dead inside, numb, and his existence appears either a cruel joke or the product of a maniacal deity. He's just a janitor: why should he care where he lives? (That question is posed to him by his nephew when he complains about having to move.) Alcohol is a sedative, "whatever" a method of coping with pain, loss, hopelessness, fear, frustration, and outbursts of anger merely a symptom of a much more serious inner problem.

Too often other significant players that produce a film go overlooked. I have to mention and praise the cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, the art director, Jourdan Henderson, the talent providing the soundtrack, Lesley Barber (thank you for including one of my all-time favorite classical pieces, Adagio per Archi E Organo in Sol Minore, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra), and, lastly, the brilliant editor, Jennifer Lame. Few understand how many people (and far more than what are mentioned here) work together to manufacture a piece of art in motion. In Manchester, the editor, Jennifer Lame, tells the story as well as everyone else involved; and here Jennifer Lame is outstanding.

Lucas Hedges (nephew Patrick Chandler), at 20 years old, has an incredibly bright future before him if he continues in this vein. He, remarkably, shows himself to be Affleck's equal. Michelle Williams, of course, shines in her minor role. Her character's conversation with that of Affleck toward the end is hopelessly heart-wrenching. But what shocks one's system is a truth, for some, that is soul-shattering: "I just can't beat it," Lee confesses to his nephew, "I just can't beat it." He cannot be Patrick's guardian because he cannot trust himself. He feels unworthy of life, of breath, to say nothing of being Patrick's guardian. There are some tragedies, some changes in life, that simply cannot be fixed. For such people, they will merely exist, but never again truly live. They just can't beat it.


RATING: 5 out of 5


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.