Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” generated a great deal of buzz before it was released, and it certainly met every expectation in the form of something rare: silence. Silence takes a human form in Lee Chandler, Casey Affleck’s taciturn yet somewhat caring character. The film is a beautiful representation of what people do in the wake of immense grief: they move on.
The film’s outset is that Lee Chandler’s older brother, Joe Chandler, has just died of a heart attack. After hearing of his brother’s death, Lee makes his way from his solitary life in Quincey, Massachusetts as a janitor to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, where his brother lived. Lee wastes no time or tears as he visits the hospital, learns the cause of death, and begins arranging details for the funeral.
Joe’s son, sixteen-year-old Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, is quickly informed by his uncle of his father’s passing. The film subsequently follows Patrick and Lee in their everyday life as they try to move on from this loss. During a visit to a lawyer it is revealed that Joe granted Lee full custody of his son, making arrangements for Lee to move to Manchester to care for Patrick. Lee is stunned by the fact that he was given custody, seemingly unprepared and reluctant to care for his nephew.
The film delicately unfolds what exactly happened to Lee to make him this deadpan, shell of a person. Flashbacks from before this great tragedy that changed Lee show him living in Manchester, and married with three children. He was once a lively man and a loving father, if not a bit susceptible to alcohol. The cheerful man from the past contrasts starkly from the quiet, socially awkward man in the present who consistently rejects any women who show interest in him. Lee is a ticking time bomb and his own worst enemy, often getting in spontaneous bar fights. These displays of immense rage and self-hatred are the only sign that Lee is feeling anything at all.
“Manchester” follows Patrick as well, the other main character, as he goes about his daily life. He continues to go to school, participate in his own rock band, and seek solace in his friends. Patrick, like any teenager, is desperately trying to grow up, but remains a child as he demands he must follow his uncle and move away from Manchester. He is still too young and immature to grasp any understanding of his uncle’s emotions, or why Lee refuses to remain in Manchester.
Hedges’ Patrick is effective in being sympathetic and more relatable in his grief: he is numb, volatile, and emotional. Hedges, being tall and lanky, is the breakout star, and despite the film’s depressing tone, he shines as a bright light full of youth and possibility.
Altogether the film is made by its stellar cast. Due to the success of the film, Affleck’s old sexual harassment allegations have resurfaced, but his celebrity-self easily bleeds away as we are absorbed into Lee’s life and character. Kyle Chandler plays Joe, a strong, dependable rock to the waves of Lee’s grief. Michelle Williams appears sporadically, yet delivers a solid performance as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, whose tears are more tangible evidence of despair.
The film’s music is minimal, thankfully making way for the astounding performances rendered by the strong cast. A single piano and string melody composed by Lesley Barber is recognizable throughout the film, though most of the time not commonly recognizable classical music plays in the background. Scenes are often overlaid with silence as the audience comes to understand that there can be little music in a life full of tragedy.
“Manchester” is held in a careful balance between slice-of-life and boring, and it manages to clear the balance well as it emerges as a masterpiece of mourning. Some tragedies are too great to shed tears over, and by the film’s end it is perfectly understandable why Lee is the way he is. There is a slight resolve at the end of the film that shows that perhaps Lee is changing, though it is so subtle it may go unrecognized. A beautiful film with a wonderful cast, “Manchester by the Sea” will go down in the books as a wonderful portrayal of despair, leaving a terrible sadness at the end, yet it remains a must-see for any movie enthusiasts.