Kenneth Lonergan began his directing career back in 2000, adapting his own play for You Can Count On Me. After beginning his second feature, Margaret, in 2005 and completing it in 2011, it’s only natural that after so many production headaches he would wait until now to give us Manchester by the Sea, an unapologetically emotional drama about grief and the often suppressive way people–especially East Coast men–deal with it.
As we get acquainted with the day-to-day existence of janitor and handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), it’s plain to see he’s operating solely at a base level, barely able to shake himself from his zombie-like state–masking the inner agony inside–to respond to tenants’ verbal abuse. One of said tenants manages to irritate him so much regarding her pipes (it’s all very porno plot) that he returns, “I don’t give a fuck what you do.” When his manager disinterestedly chastises for him it, it becomes clear that this type of behavior is pretty standard for Lee, and he knows he’s untouchable because he gets paid essentially nothing and is still dependable.
The other form of behavior that comes standard for Lee is ignoring women who blatantly hit on him and engaging in bar brawls whenever he feels someone even remotely looks at him funny. Even as he’s being informed over the phone that his brother’s in the hospital back in Manchester by the Sea, Lee remains emotionally impenetrable. Then again, through the interspersed flashback structure, we soon learn that Joe (Kyle Chandler) was always doomed to come to an early end thanks to his congestive heart failure condition. Though Lee and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), had been bracing for this moment for years, it doesn’t make the reality any less difficult to bear.
And yes, much of Manchester by the Sea deals with this notion of insurmountable heartbreak–the kind one simply lives with like a terminal disease or HPV. The quote to end all quotes comes from Lee’s ex-wife, Randy (Michelle Williams), when she confesses to him, “My heart’s broken and it’s always gonna be broken.” Lee one-ups her by saying there’s nothing where his heart used to be anymore. Their shared pain over an accident that destroys both of their lives is something that Lee can never get over, and something he feels he must punish himself for eternally, which is, in part, why he works the job he does–it helps with the debasement he’s searching for to make up for his unforgivable sin.
It’s a sin we’re given gradual clues to, until the entire memory is shown as Lee is being informed that Joe has left him to be the guardian of Patrick. Though he’s always had a strong rapport with Patrick (tenderly revealed through their picturesque boat outings together on the Claudia Marie), he’s still in disbelief that Joe would enlist him for such a responsibility. And more than that, it’s the sting of memories—better times–of Manchester by the Sea that makes Lee question why Joe would torture him with the obligation to return to the scene of his crime.
Patrick, on the other hand, can’t fathom why Lee would drag him to Boston to live with him when all his friends–his entire life–is in Manchester by the Sea, whereas all Lee has going for him is a career in the custodial arts that he could pursue anywhere. But it’s pretty clear that Lee doesn’t exactly feel comfortable being back; the legend of his legacy can be felt wherever he goes, with residents incredulously asking, “That’s the Lee Chandler?” But to Patrick, he’s just Uncle Lee, and always will be.
Almost as noticeable as the constant state of anguish Lee walks around in is the Massachusetts accent and salt of the earth, working class (read: alcoholic) persona, which remains in full play throughout the narrative–what else could you expect from a Matt Damon-produced vehicle? And with these things comes the torment of repressed emotions that can’t be picked at too intensively, lest everything comes apart at the seams. In truth, it’s a film that coincides quite perfectly with the holidays. A new classic for the season, if you will.