At risk of forming a catalog of types of films I don’t really enjoy, tragedies pretty rarely cut it for me. Most of the time they feel like they’re sad for the sake of sadness. Any loved one is only a prop who could potentially be ripped away from the protagonist, any gain only something to be lost at a later time. It’s feels formulaic to me, and cruel on top of that, and most of all hollow because I know it’s been constructed as a trick on the protagonists. The gods (writer, director) created the protagonist only to put them through tumult, and the gods only put them through tumult to make me sad (and maybe win an award).
Manchester by the Sea focuses on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, who did you know he can act?), a sad sack of a janitor living in a single room apartment in Boston. He is summoned back to his former home after his older brother Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) dies of heart complications. There he deals with his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick Chanlder (Lucas Hedges, who delivers probably the most believable performance of a teenager I’ve seen maybe ever) and the ghosts of the life he left behind.
The fact that Lee left town for a reason is evident from minute one, and the reasons are slowly revealed in flashbacks and dredged up in the present. You can see each knife as it drives itself into him, and you grow to understand and sympathize with him. The guilt and anger and sadness are never verbalized, but they hang heavy in every scene, and they grow in their silent weight.
What makes Manchester so successful is its detailed and fully realized characters. A lot of tragedy comes from characters needing something from someone else, and that someone else being unable to offer it. Manchester offers this as its central tragedy, but it doesn’t hold anyone in contempt. The people who need help are not being unfair in (again, silently) begging for it, but the people who could help them are not being withholding – they genuinely cannot offer what they see being asked for.
There are also the ideas that some character simply cannot climb out of the darkness. The movie does not condemn those characters. It focuses a light of them, and offers them understanding if not salvation. Some characters are so broken down they cannot straighten themselves out. Patrick goes over to his Sandy’s (Anna Baryshnikov) house twice in the movie to try to sleep with her, but the first time he is constantly thwarted by her mother knocking on the door. He asks Lee to come in the next time, because it could be “really good for both of us”. As Patrick and Sandy try to get things going upstairs, Lee and Sandy’s mother sit in desperate silence downstairs. He has nothing to offer her, nothing to say. His life is totally and utterly empty. He comes inside because Patrick asked him to, and he is there for his nephew. But he is an empty vessel when it comes to most everything else.
There are a few moments that are the “dark moments” for any given character, but the film does not suggest that those moments are life ruining. It suggests that somehow they compound and break someone down slowly. There is not “just one thing” that the characters need to do so that they will be happy. There isn’t something staring them in the face, and if only they’d see it and seize it all would be fine. Somewhere along the line they snapped, permanently. They are still functional, they are still loving and caring, but they cannot ever go backwards to who they once were. It’s sad, but it’s a realistic message, and one without contempt.
Manchester by the Sea had 8 out of 10 gut punches.
-I mentioned above that Manchester by the Sea uses extensive flashbacks. Usually this bothers me, but the movie did it with so little fanfare and without ever really disrupting the current action (which was well paced and compact) that Manchester changed my opinion on another thing that I generally dislike.
-Another thing I mentioned above was Lucas Hedges’ incredible performance. This is seriously the best-written and performed teen in any movie I can think of. His world is turned upside down, but he keeps being a sort of sullen shit head, in the best way possible.
-The movie also makes great use of comedy. My favorite scene in the whole movie is when Lee and Patrick are unable to remember where they parked and wander around in the cold winter day for far too long.
–Manchester reminds me a lot of another tragedy I really enjoyed: Leviathan, which also took place in a small working class coastal town and which also kept punching the main character while they were down. But both stories work well in their due to their near mythic proportions (in the tragedy itself) while maintaining strong, believable, and complex characters.
-This movie has a little Matthew Broderick, but not quite enough Matthew Broderick.