If there’s one phrase that describes noted playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s moving meditation on how a man broken by the ultimate family tragedy must now cope with a seemingly equal but in reality lesser tragedy—the death of a sibling—it’s “life must go on.” Indeed, Manchester by the Sea features two tragedies which affect Lonergan’s protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Boston handyman, with a hair trigger temper and surly disposition. Ironically, Lonergan introduces us to Lee’s second tragedy first and makes it clear that this tragedy—the death of his 50 or so older brother Joe from a congenital heart condition—offers Lee in some measure an opportunity to overcome the demons of the more devastating earlier tragedy, which Lonergan wisely treats as a mystery until the film’s midpoint.
Early on, Lonergan suggests that there’s something terribly wrong emotionally with Lee. He provokes a fight at a bar and appears to revel in his victim’s retaliation of beating him to a bloody pulp. Later, when he meets his friend’s brother at the hospital to identify his brother’s body, Lee inappropriately explodes in anger in front of a caring nurse and attending physician.
In a clever plot twist at the beginning of Act 2, Lonergan’s mordant Lee (who soon we’ll learn has a death wish), is thrust into the unenviable position of becoming guardian to his 16 year old nephew, Patrick, Joe’s son. Lee, with his repressed rage, is the last person who should be given the responsibility of caring for a family member—and he’s blindsided when he realises that his brother never gave him an inkling of his plans for Patrick upon his demise.The reality of Joe’s death indeed has nothing to do with death but everything to do with life going on. Indeed the machinations in the second act—especially the interplay between Lee and Patrick—are Lonergan’s way of suggesting that there is much comedy in the midst of tragedy. Whether the focus is on people in the community (the two paramedics unable to get a stretcher into the back of their ambulance) or one of the principals (Patrick and his girlfriend fumbling to put on their clothes after attempting sex with the girlfriend’s mother knocking on the door), Lonergan is determined to lighten things up before explaining the tragedy of Lee’s existence.
But before he does that, Lonergan must also do a bit of foreshadowing, so that there’s some kind of setup for Lee’s modest resurrection. Initially Lee is depicted as being unbending when he plans to uproot his nephew by taking him out of school, making him leave all his friends and bringing him to Boston, where he’ll be isolated and unhappy. When that plan falls apart, he sends Patrick off to see if he can co-habit with his biological mother— that plan is a disaster as well; we soon learn that the mother’s new husband is a Christian Fundamentalist who has no intention of giving Patrick his “space.”
Finally Lonergan, in a series of flashbacks, reveals the root of Lee’s devastating malady. One night when he was married, he went out to get some beers and forgot to close a screen in the fireplace, resulting in a fire that killed his three children. In perhaps the best and most shocking scene in the film, after he’s informed of the death of his children at the police station, he grabs a deputy’s gun and tries to shoot himself in the head—only to be wrestled down by the attendant officers. One only wonders why Lee didn’t attempt suicide again.Lee must undergo one last baptism of fire— and that’s when he runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) on the street who begs his forgiveness by admitting that she said many horrible things to him at the time when their children were killed. She wants to be close to Lee again but he can’t open up. Mick LaSalle, writing in the SF Chronicle, couldn’t have said it better when he wrote: “People don’t always recover. Some things are so awful that recovery is simply not possible. Likewise, in the aftermath of tragedy, most people aren’t completely destroyed. They don’t end up in a ditch or in a straitjacket. They simply remain at a base level of pain that never ends, that never gets better and never gets worse.”
But somehow there was some movement in a positive direction for Lee. As a result of his relationship with his nephew and the confrontation with his ex-wife, shall we say there was a softening up? At film’s end, Lee is no longer just thinking about himself— he devises a plan for Patrick to live with Joe’s friend (whom we met much earlier at the hospital) so he can remain in town but still able to visit Lee in Boston.
Lonergan, in his brilliant portrait, suggests that the anomalous tragedy that befell Lee does not separate him emotionally from you or me. Most of us are afraid of our own repressed anger (or even rage), which may lead to a breakdown and resulting catharsis involving the expression of great sorrow. Lee’s problem was that he was blocked from following through on his rage so he could experience the sorrow.
Casey Affleck’s performance will probably earn him a Best Actor Award at the upcoming Academy Awards, and additional special mention should be made of Lucas Hedges in his most convincing portrait of the beleaguered nephew. Michelle Williams also was quite affecting especially in the final confrontation with Affleck, pouring out her heart in remorse for previous words of anger.
Kenneth Lonergan is one of our few writers today who can deliver multi- dimensional characters and write comedy and tragedy on the level of the great writers of yesteryear. Manchester by the Sea delivers an impeccable and moving Weltanschauung from its opening scene.