It’s impossible to speak of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea without alluding to its major premise: Some events in life simply can’t be overcome. However, stating that conclusion does not betray the work’s plot, because from the outset the story depicts a man upon whom a terrible blow has been dealt.
There is no hiding the reality of Lee Chandler’s all but palpable melancholy. Casey Affleck (the much more talented actor of the two Affleck brothers) shows the quiet range of his skills in the glassy-countenanced depiction of a suburban-Boston janitor whose sorrow is wrought into every movement of his mundane life. One doubts that he even feels the cold of the snowy New England winter as he loads a dumpster with trash and brushes off the advances of bored tenants.
So when news comes that Chandler’s older brother has passed away back in his hometown, the loss, though felt, has the effect of another stripe added to the back of a whiplashed mule; the animal winces, but is far too calloused from old, deep injuries to cry out in any audible way. Still, what he finds when he arrives for the funeral is a complication that adds new dimensions to his burdens.
It seems that his brother’s long illness had provided his brother time to plan for the provision of his teenage son, with whom he had lived after the boy’s alcoholic mother ran away from them. As the only surviving relative, Chandler is to inherit both the dead brother’s livelihood—a deep sea fishing boat—and also serve as guardian to the teenager.
Though it is understood that at one time the boy and his uncle were close, and that they have kept up some kind of a relationship in the intervening years, the news of this bequeathed responsibility is met with more than the usual disquietude. Chandler must seek a way out of the position in which he has been placed, but do so in a fashion that honors his brother’s legacy and arranges for his nephew’s future.
What the viewer comes to learn in the span of the movie is why even the janitor’s return to the place of his birth in order to see to his brother’s affairs is a supreme act of the will. Told in interlocking present-day and flashback scenes, the reason why Chandler’s trip takes every ounce of his strength to muster also informs why any resolution of the problems caused by his brother’s death can only be small, attenuated ones.
The film doesn’t settle Chandler’s laden past through the typical means we expect from theatrical releases. Instead, Lonergan provides a more honest portrayal of how much courage it takes to live a life that has been so warped by events that even recusals, concessions, and forfeitures can seem the wisest choices.
Some circumstances can limit us too profoundly for recovery, so that we forever pull up lame and break down short. We simply cannot “out-believe” their power with positive thinking, no matter what modern culture and its ruling science, psychology, would have us imagine.
Affleck is in his finest form as he instills the character with a kind of labor-sore endurance that has lived in a territory no one else can bear to look upon, let alone fathom. It is as though he has heard every consolation and tried every cure, and can only watch and listen to others as they flit and flurry about him, living lives as foreign as a butterfly’s is to a fish.
Equally fine in a small role is Michelle Williams, as Chandler’s ex-wife, who in one impactful scene cries out her remorse over the infliction of past cruelties and recriminations, however understandable they might have been in context. As his mirror, only she can understand what he suffers. But as is often the case with those who have shared a life-changing event, that very fact makes her presence practically unbearable to him.
For those who fear that the weight of the film sounds too heavy to watch, in the end, there is a type of future forged both for Chandler and his nephew. But it is an imperfect resolution that the viewer comes to accept as the only future that can realistically be expected, given the truth of what has gone before. It may be that such honesty is the sole alternative when a landscape has been blasted so clean and bare as this one by the power of a winter’s sea.
A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.
Above image by Bex Walton, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.