With its release date of November 18, Manchester by the Sea preceded the oncoming frosty Connecticut weather with a poignant, moving tale set in our northern neighbor, Massachusetts. The movie stars Casey Affleck (Ben’s lesser known little brother) as Lee Chandler – a tough, brooding maintenance worker in Boston doing odd jobs for various tenants, and drinking away his sorrows at local taverns and throwing punches at pretentious onlookers when the mood strikes him. Lee seems resigned to his fate. His stoicism endears him to us but also makes him that much more enigmatic. In spite of his unhappiness, Lee’s life is steady and predictable. He has a job and a home and his only worries are for himself.
This picture of stability vanishes one day when Lee is shoveling a fresh snowfall and receives a phone call announcing that his brother’s heart has given out. He promptly leaves his work and drives north to Manchester-by-the-Sea – the title locale and main setting of the story – only to arrive an hour too late. His brother has died and Lee suddenly finds himself the newly appointed guardian of his nephew Patrick. Reluctant but unable to deny his brother’s dying wish, Lee contends not only with his new parental obligations, but with a darker, far more tragic history of his own in Manchester, revived by his return to haunt him anew.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who movie buffs might know for his previous films You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York, Manchester by the Sea is visually beautiful. The camera work features numerous aerial shots depicting the multiplicity of experiences in Manchester as well as ground level shots which place the characters eye-to-eye, never giving anyone dominance or any semblance of grandeur – always human, raw and vulnerable. The color palette is soft and subdued, hinting at the bleakness of winter and, more broadly, life itself. The soundtrack teems with rich orchestral works and well-known, popular music, which lend the film both heartrending melancholy and casual nonchalance. A significant part of the story is told through flashbacks which might confuse the audience if they do not gauge the time gap, but they are essential to understanding Lee’s troubled past.
Even with all of the above, the film’s real drama and success is in its characters. In spite of his harsh exterior, Lee is an immensely charismatic protagonist for whom we cannot help but ache with sympathy. His nephew Patrick has a sharp tongue and an irreverent sense of humor, which at first makes him seem selfish, but, like his uncle, we soon learn this is partially a front he puts on to cope with the bleak reality of his life. Patrick reminds us of what it was like to be young, and through their initially awkward interactions, he and Lee grow to care for each other through their bond. Also of note is Lee’s ex-wife Randi, who appears both in flashbacks as well as in the present, functioning as a foil through which we see the extent of Lee’s heartache.
The film’s resolution and ending is indeed anticlimactic, but perhaps it reflects that life does not always lead to some grand culmination. Sometimes, we face the darkness in our hearts and can only learn how to move on. Regardless of the ending, Manchester by the Sea is an emotional and tender journey that almost anyone can appreciate and learn from.
Brian Roach is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.