Manchester By the Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) starts off with a happy memory of Lee (Casey Affleck) on a boat with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). We then move on to see what Lee’s life is like now. He’s a lonesome figure (something Casey Affleck is good at playing, whether it’s in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or in Lonesome Jim) who dutifully does his job as a handyman/custodian and then goes to the bar for a silent drink.
The only times he seems to engage with people are because he has to (for work) or to antagonize them when he’s drunk. He appears to have no meaningful relationships in his life in the present. In the past, though, he clearly did. His whole life feels very routine, organized and lonely. Then he gets the call that his brother is dying, and he drives up to Manchester.
That’s when we get more flashbacks about what Lee’s life was once life. He had a strong and typical sibling relationship with his brother, and he had a family, a wife and three kids. These memories paint a picture of a man with a modest life, yet one that is full of life nonetheless. It’s in stark contrast to what we see now, which is a man who appears numb to everything around him.
Lee asks to see the body, and his awkward, drawn out reaction to his brother’s body is similar in nature to the way he approaches almost every conversation with people around him. He’s slow to act, thinking through every possible response as if he’s taking a multiple choice test rather than simply talking to someone. Each interaction feels labored as if he’s not sure how he’s supposed to behave or even feel. Even the simplest of encounters becomes a struggle, like he’s conversationally-dyslexic, trying to put the words together to just say something like “No thanks.” He tries so hard to be polite, not wanting to push anyone to far away despite not letting anyone get close to him.
Lee is very practical about dealing with his brother’s death in terms of arrangements and talking to the lawyer because it’s the only thing he can control. He also likes to fix things, though usually only the smallest of things because they serve more as a distraction than anything else. The story is built around Joe’s will, in which he grants custody of 16 year old Patrick to Lee. This is a shock to Lee who says he can’t take care of his nephew. He seems dedicated to his life and job in Boston even though it’s a simple job, and he has little to no roots in the city. As we learn, however, his life in Manchester ended in tragedy that has defined him ever since and will continue to follow him wherever he goes. It’s just more strongly felt here in Manchester. So when Lee insists he can’t take care of Patrick, it feels more like he considers himself to be a danger to the kid. In other words, he thinks it would be irresponsible for Joe to grant custody to Lee who can barely take care of himself.
As he sits with the lawyer, Lee looks out the window and we see what happened to make him the way he is. After a night of heavy drinking, Lee went to the nearby market to grab more beer. This was during the winter, and he put a fire in the fireplace to keep the house warm for his kids, and when he returned the house was in flames. All three of his children were killed, and his life effectively fell apart. The only reason he didn’t disappear into the abyss was because his brother Joe was there to catch him.
So Joe’s death isn’t so much about Joe as much as it is a possible trigger for Lee to spiral out of control. It’s incredibly bleak and gut wrenching. It makes Lee’s guilt so much more apparent as well as the reason he’s constantly getting into bar fights. His character becomes that much more transparent, and suddenly we know how far he’s fallen. The rest of the story is about a journey back to the water’s surface from the depths beneath, except the biggest challenge isn’t whether Lee can make it, it’s whether he wants to try.
Lee’s nephew Patrick is the antithesis of almost everything Lee represents. Where Lee is isolated, Patrick is surrounded. Where Lee seems asexual, Patrick is hyper sexual. Where Lee is reluctant to speak, Patrick is verbally-fierce, kind of like a debater. He is quick to point out flaws in Lee’s thinking an arguments, whether it’s about keeping Joe in a freezer until the ground is soft enough to bury him or whether it’s about Lee’s plan to move both him and Patrick to Boston (something Patrick is very much against). The only ways the characters are similar, in fact, is their affinity for fighting. Even then, however, Patrick’s fighting is a sign of how full of life and vigor he is whereas Lee’s brawling is more akin to someone thrashing in the water trying to stay afloat. Patrick fights because he can, he’s strong and athletic. Lee fights for the last scrap of a bread crumb because he needs it to survive.
A lot of comedies are based around an odd couple, whether it’s The Odd Couple (which I’ve never actually seen) or a buddy cop movie. Manchester By the Sea is very much the same way. Lee and Patrick are constantly bickering, though usually in a playful way. It occasionally escalates, but they recognize the struggle within each other in dealing with Joe’s death. On the surface, both actually take it very well. This is because they have been conditioned to prepare for Joe’s passing. He had a heart attack a certain number of years earlier, the result of a degenerative heart issue, and the doctor told them he would only have 5-10 years to live.
For Patrick, this tragedy is the whole tragedy. Despite the knowledge that it would happen sooner than later, he eventually opens up, and we and Lee see how affected he is by his father’s death. For Lee, it’s merely the last straw, or it would be if not for Patrick. Because of his sense of duty, Lee tries to keep it together for his nephew. At first this means doing whatever he can to pack up and leave Manchester as soon as he can, but ultimately he compromises and organizes a situation in which Patrick can stay in Manchester and hold on to the life he has made for himself.
The film ends with Lee telling Patrick that he’s looking for a new place in Boston that will have an extra room so Patrick can visit him occasionally. They return to the boat that we first saw at the beginning of the film (and which was mostly inoperable throughout the story), sitting side by side, an encouraging image of a man having a conversation that’s not built around duty or obligation but a desire to just be there.
There are a bunch of things I want to discuss that I haven’t touched on in the movie recap above. I don’t know where to start, but here goes.
Lee and Joe reminded me of the Kennedy’s, mostly Jack and Bobby. They’re both from Massachusetts, with strong accents, they’re both handsome, around the same age as the Kennedy’s when they were killed, and they spend a lot of time on a boat. When I think of Jack Kennedy, for some reason I mostly think of him wearing sunglasses on a boat in Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard or someplace like that.
The Kennedy’s, of course, mostly ended in tragedy. Like Bobby dealing with the aftermath of Jack’s assassination, Lee has to deal with the aftermath of Joe’s passing. I’m not sure of what to make of this comparison beyond that, but it’s just something that stood out to me.
The boat. So we meet the two men and the boy on the boat, and they’re having a good time. The boat and the sea are both joyful memories, so the boat’s inability to run (because of a faulty motor) is a pretty clear metaphor for what’s happened to Lee. As long as the boat doesn’t run, you might reason, he can’t run. In the end they get the boat running, and that’s where the movie ends.
Manchester might as well be an island because the movie starts and ends with Lee off the island, as if the story is about his descent into hell and semi-successful return to life. The city is full of pain for him, not just because of what he did, but also because it’s a small town in which he can’t hide from his reputation or himself. In Boston, at least, he’s just “the handyman.” Lee overhears one woman talking on the phone about how she is attracted to him, her janitor. He is nameless in Boston, just blending in. But in Manchester, he’s Lee Chandler. Everyone knows him.
Early in the film, when Lee picks up Patrick from hockey practice and delivers the news about his dad, the coach tells the other kids that that is Lee Chandler. His name carries weight, and at first I assumed it was because he must have been a hockey legend at their school. In reality, he’s infamous for incidentally starting the fire that killed his three children. In another scene, Lee asks someone for a job if they have any openings as he tries to make a life in Manchester work out. A woman tells the man when Lee leaves to not hire him. His ghosts follow him everywhere, and that’s why he’s so stubborn about taking Patrick back with him to Boston instead of remaining in Manchester.
So as I touched on earlier, this film is both tragic and incredibly funny. One of the biggest jokes of the film might be that Joe granted custody of Patrick to Lee. Joe, from what we saw of him, seemed to have a good sense of humor, though maybe that’s just based on what I expect from Kyle Chandler characters. It would be odd for Joe to give Lee custody considering they never discussed it, and maybe it’s not so much of a joke on Joe’s part as much as it is a lifeline, a way to force Lee to get back involved in the everyday rhythm of life. In flashbacks we see how present Joe was in helping Lee after his own tragedy. Joe was very hands on, proving love and support but also remaining stern with Lee to make sure he didn’t disappear.
The other character I haven’t mentioned is Lee’s ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). We only see her in flashbacks, and even then we barely get a sense of who she is beyond being a wife and a mother. Just as Lee’s life is destroyed, so is hers after the fire, understandably. In the present she calls Lee after Joe’s death and asks to come to the funeral. She also tells him she’s pregnant, and it’s very hard for him to deal with this news, though he struggles with it silently.
Lee runs into her later in the film, in probably the most tense and heart-wrenching scene, and she apologizes to him. Randi says she’s sorry for the things she said to him after the fire, and Lee desperately tries to get her to stop. He can’t bare to hear her apologize to him because he’s so full of guilt and anguish that he feels he deserves every nasty thing thrown his way because it will never add up to what he himself did. It’s a hard scene to watch, and Randi is so emotive. You can almost see her words push Lee even further into his shell. He can’t stomach looking back, and the only thing he can possibly do is to avoid saying anything, doing anything or even letting himself move on. He’s paralyzed. He neither wants to return to that pain not move forward from it.
Randi, though, has tried to move on, even if she admits that her heart will always be broken from those events. She makes it clear, in her words with Lee, that she was consumed by rage and hate, but now she’s consumed by love, even love that is so strong it hurts. It what compels her to make it clear to Lee how much she loves him and to apologize for what she once said. She’s trying to hold onto any lifeline she can, whether that’s a new life, a new child or her ex-husband. Lee, on the other hand, is the person in the eye of the storm, surrounded by all of these feelings yet experiencing none of them.
The biggest moment in the movie, in which Lee is his most open, is when he tells Patrick that he’s going to live with George, Joe’s friend. It’s the only way to allow Patrick to remain in Manchester since the other option, Lee staying, is nonnegotiable. Patrick wants Lee to stay, demonstrating the bond that has developed between them, but Lee struggles to say “I can’t beat it.” It could be any number of things, whether it’s just his own personal tragedy or depression as a whole. Lee admits defeat, but he doesn’t admit abandonment. The face that he offers Patrick a room to stay should he come and visit is the clearest example of progress in his character. He’s willing himself to hold onto this final familial connection, like a lifeline for himself and for Patrick.
The end of the movie, though, is surprisingly quiet and hardly cathartic. It’s only once the movie fades to black that you recall the final few scenes and look for meaning, just like how you might only find meaning in a memory after enough time has passed. Life just keeps going, and meaning isn’t always apparent until days, weeks, months, years later.
After they finally hold Joe’s burial, Patrick and Lee walk together, more like brothers than a father-son type of relationship. They bounce a ball together while Lee loosens his tie. This is when Lee tells Patrick about finding a room in Boston for him, also in case Patrick goes to college there. Patrick tells Lee he’s not going to college, and Lee doesn’t argue with him. I guess he’s letting Patrick decide for himself.
One of the movie trailers before this in the theater is for Mike Mills’ upcoming film 20th Century Women. I’ve seen the trailer multiple times recently, and Annette Benning’s character says something like “the people who matter are just the ones who show up.” Manchester by the Sea ends with Lee making it clear to the movie audience that he showed up. He’s not going to enforce his ideas on Patrick, and maybe he doesn’t need to. Patrick is old enough to have learned a lot from Joe, and maybe it’s for him to decide if he wants to go to college. Some things you have to figure out for yourself. All Lee can do is be there for him, and not just because he has to but because he wants to.
*One final thing is that the the movie revisits a lot of the same shots, like Lee shoveling snow outside his Boston apartment or perspectives of the sea off of Manchester, and I think this is simply because the movie itself is about revisiting old memories.
**Okay, one more note. Lee’s Boston apartment is below ground level, so that he has a window out of which you can only see people’s feet as they walk by. This shows how much he has retreated from life, and it reminded me of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” In it, there are people imprisoned in a cave whose only experience of life is the shadows cast on the wall from the outside world. They think the shadows are the people and animals, etc. Then one of them is forced to go outside and finally able to adjust to the sunlight and see what the real world really is like. He returns to the cave to tell the others what happened, but in the process of his eyes adjusting to the sunlight, he is blind once he returns to the cave. The other prisoners see his blindness as a consequence of him leaving the cave, so it reinforces the idea that they should remain in the cave, in their own, self-created reality.
Now, I’m not sure if this is a good comparison for this film, but Lee is in a cave/apartment, he is forced to leave by the news of Joe’s death and then he ultimately returns to the cave, though it is true that he’s looking for a different cave with two bedrooms.