Film review: Manchester by the Sea (Director: Kenneth Lonergan)
By Sascha Krieger
The sea is calm, sad, haunting music plays. A boat heads out to sea. Slowly the camera’s eye comes nearer. On the boat a young man playfully talks to a small boy, the boy’s father steering the boat. When stranded on a deserted island, the uncle asks, who would the boy want to have by his side: him or his father. The latter, he promptly says, and his uncle agrees. Both might be right. Years later the father and brother has died and the uncle, Lee, been appointed guardian of the now teenage Patrick. As grief gives way to confusion, the introverted man and the testosterone-filled boy struggle to forge a relationship while constantly undermining their effort. Lee is the key figure here: At the beginning, we see him quietly go about his job. He is a janitor and handyman at a Boston apartment complex. Quiet, grumpy, rejecting all attempts at social interaction. A recluse, a misanthropist, it seems, who only engages with others when he, injected with beer, starts a random fight at a bar. In a long, gently flowing introduction director Kenneth Lonergan introduces us to Lee, masterfully played by Casey Affleck. A man withdrawn from life, plodding along in a tightly constricted world
Then this world opens as he has to go back home to deal with his brother’s death and his nephew’s care. The Massachusettes sea-side is lit by a pale, greyish light, gentle but not really warming. The camera mostly creates still frames, an occasional slow zooming in or out as much movement as director of photography Jody Lee Lipes allows. The constrained imagery, the paralysis of the visual framework symbolize Lee’s inability to open up, to face and overcome his demons as it does Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges‘ portrayal of the slightly cocky, challenging, yet vulnerable Patrick is a revelation) struggle to deal with the complete change in his life. A careful back and forth ensues but the distance remains. Lee shies away from the responsibility, Patrick refuses to compromise. There are no major clashes as the two hurting souls seek community and fear it at the same time. More and more the past enters as Lee is forced to remember. Painful and joyous memories come back, unwanted, forceful brutal. Lonergan often mixes them into contemporary scenes, thereby creating the sense of a past shaping the present. Through this and more or less halfway through the film, the viewer learns what made Lee the way he is. His story is one of guilt and the refusal to allow himself to be redeemed.
Both are shared by his ex-wife Randi (a short but memorable role: Michelle Williams), who confronts him with her love in a chance meeting. Lee, however, cannot go back, the past is past and cannot be recreated any more than it can be forgotten. This is the conclusion he comes to in the film’s overwhelmingly gentle, tender ending that solves nothing but opens the door just a tiny little bit. For Patrick to grow up, become the generous, warm-hearted, self-confident man he might be. And for Lee the chance for if not redemption then at least some peace in his restless soul. He will leave alone but maybe not as lonely as he came. Manchester by the Sea is a quiet, gentle, poetic elegy, a haunting tale of guilt and redemption, about lost souls in what clearly is a dying world – the fishing town that gives the film its title seems like out of a different age and won’t be ignored long by the modern world. And it is a film about men, men who surrender to the repressive expectations of masculinity and who respond to it by more repression against others as well as themselves, heavy drinking and gratuitous violence, leaving themselves and the few women in their world scarred for life. Even the „good men“ like Lee’s brother Joe are not exempt from this. As a sorrowful musical score, relying heavily on Händel, indicates a religious and universal note, man (and woman) is not redeemed but the chance that the circle might at least be bent if not broken is kept alive. The ending finds Lee and Patrick back on the boat. Quiet, side by side. Eternity is a sea-side town in Massachusettes.