Manchester by the Sea

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) seems to live a quiet existence as a janitor in Boston. His life is relegated to clearing toilets, fixing light fixtures, shovelling snow and then returning to his one bedroom apartment in the basement of the complex. As he moves through this custodial mediocrity, he receives the call that his brother has died in their hometown of Manchester by the Sea. Lee has to return to this small community in Massachusetts to take care of his brother’s affairs and to get reacquainted with his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Working through all of the details of his brother’s business and personal life, Lee is informed that he has been given custody of Patrick and is the trustee of the young man’s estate. As his quiet life is disrupted and uprooted, he must come to terms with these new responsibilities and with his past life in this small town.

Playwright and director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) returns to cinemas with a tour deforce re-introduction that rips open the wounds of grief in the lives of men. The pain and raw nerves that are exposed by this film become an ode to the hardened souls of the coastline of northeast America. Each well calculated element develops into a beautifully crafted film of life, death and the grief that follows. His screenplay carefully strips away each crusted layer of the melancholy that all experience at some point in their lives with painful precision. He exposes the hearts of these men and how they process suffering and death. This is writing that is worth celebrating, but is a difficult experience to enjoy. If anything can make the script more palatable it is Lonegran’s use of humour to relieve the pressure from the emotional trauma of the film. To laugh at these situations could cause some to feel a bit uneasy, but it does allow a bit of light into the darkness of this tale of mourning. 

Casey Affleck (The Finest Hours) deserves every accolade that he is receiving for his performance as Lee Chandler. Taking over for the role that was vacated by Matt Damon, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing this hardened and embittered soul. He embodies the physical characteristics of Lee Chandler while effectively delivering the well-chosen words supplied by Lonergan. He is able to capture each step, glance and gesture of this grieving uncle which embodies the writing magnificently. Adding to each layer of his history as it gets ripped away and exposes another nuanced element of his performance. The police interrogation scene alone gives room for Affleck to receive any award handed to him in the coming months. Even with an excellent cast supporting his leading work, they are merely bit players in a film that is shouldered by the Bostonian native. The highlight amongst the other players of the film belongs to Michelle Williams (Oz: The Great and Powerful). Unfortunately, she does not get much screen time, but the few scenes with Affleck make for some of the best cinematic interchanges of the year. 

In amongst the craftsmanship of Lonergan’s directing style, some audience members may find some elements difficult to appreciate. Due to his severe editing methods, as he travels between the present time and flashbacks, it may be an artistic stretch for viewers to follow the storyline. Another challenging element can be found in the language and lifestyle of this area of the world, which proves to be as brutal as the characters themselves. None of the cast is expected to hold back in conveying the extremity of emotions involved with confronting the issues surrounding death. Despite these minor issues, Manchester by the Sea is a piece of art that is worth engaging and will open the door to a multitude of discussions and considerations on the topics of life and death. 

REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

Manchester by the Sea brings grief to the forefront of people’s lives. Regret, tears, anger, confusion are some of the emotions that come along during this time in the lives of those who lose a loved one. One thing that can be considered about the message of the Bible is that God is not only there for those who grieve, but that he can empathise with them too. His Son died a horrific death and it allows people to know that they can come to a God who knows how they feel during this low in their lives.

Questions

1. Does the Bible have anything to say about death? (Ecclesiastes 12:7, John 14:1-3)

2. What can we learn from grief? (Psalm 34:18, 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4)

3. Is God a mystery? (Colossians 2:2-3, Ephesians 3:5)

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Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.