by Peter J. O’ Connell
Manchester by the Sea. Released: Dec. 2016. Runtime: 137 mins. MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and some sexual content.
A fishing boat heads out to sea on a gray day. Two men and a young boy are on it, apparently enjoying themselves. That uncertain-looking day at sea turns out well. We learn later that the boy catches a big fish. But life on shore in the coming years after that day does not turn out so well. Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, shows us a slice—actually several slices--of that life on shore in the small Massachusetts town of the title.
Immediately after the opening scene, we find ourselves in winter in Boston, about an hour or so drive south of Manchester, with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) working as a handy man at some apartment buildings. Lee, one of the men we saw on the fishing boat, though skilled at his tasks is glum and inexpressive. Apparently, however, he has some rage within, as we see when he precipitates a fight in a bar.
Lee receives a phone call summoning him to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea. At a hospital he learns that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), captain of that fishing boat, has died—on the boat. Several flashbacks follow, giving us background on Lee, Joe and Patrick, Joe’s son, the boy on the boat, then 8, now 16 in the present of the story. One of the flashbacks establishes that Lee and his then wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), were parents of three young children.
The many flashbacks in the film are not “prepared for” or stylized or accompanied by explanatory text. They just happen, filmed the same way as the scenes in the present. The flashbacks challenge us to become involved in the story just as the characters are challenged by events to solve problems occurring in their lives.
As the movie proceeds, we learn that Joe’s will has named Lee as Patrick’s guardian and set up financial arrangements to assist Lee and Patrick. Lee wants none of this because it apparently would require him to move back to Manchester to live, but he has no choice because of Patrick’s needs. Joe divorced Patrick’s mother because she was an alcoholic and drug abuser. For his part, Patrick (superbly played by Lucas Hedges) has to mourn his father while managing relationships with his mother, Lee, two girlfriends, and two sports teams on which he plays.
Because the ground in Manchester is frozen (metaphor alert!), Joe’s burial has to be delayed. His body is to be kept in a freezer at the funeral home. In one of the bits of dark humor scattered throughout this multi-tonal film, Patrick, upset at the burial delay and the freezing of his father’s body, throws around some meat that falls from a refrigerator at his house. (The film also has some deliciously deadpan dialogue.)
During the period of the delay, Lee attempts to work out all the issues stemming from Joe’s will. He also has to deal with the memories and other consequences of a tragedy that happened five years before. The tragedy led Randi to divorce Lee and caused many townspeople to distrust and dislike him, even though Manchester was his hometown and they had known him for years. It’s that tragedy that has caused Lee to become glum and inexpressive.
Issues of guilt, responsibility and redemption wind and unwind in the bright winter light of snow-covered Manchester, with its straight streets lined by white houses. The issues are not black and white, however, but more like the gray of that day at sea, and isn’t going out to sea a metaphor for venturing through life?
Lonergan’s script has a somewhat traditional framework—the homecoming because of a death in the family—but its specifics are often surprising and unique. His direction of his script is strikingly skillful, and the performances he elicits are memorable. Casey Affleck makes his character, who is emotionally withdrawn for much of the movie, nonetheless magnetic to the audience. Michelle Williams’ brief appearances are intensely moving, and Lucas Hedges seems destined for a fine career.
The moviegoer’s two-plus hours spent watching winter (in several senses) turn to spring (in several senses) in Manchester-by-the-Sea is time very well spent. So see Manchester by the Sea!
“Footnote” to the film: Casey Affleck was seen earlier in 2016 in another film set on the Massachusetts coast in winter, The Finest Hours.