Review by © Jane Freebury
It is no small irony that the main character in Manchester by the Sea is a dependable handyman who can fix anything and everything. The problems that daily life present him with, like blocked drains and snowbound porches, are relatively simple and straightforward, requiring a bit of brawn and stoicism.
It’s when it comes to dealing face-to-face with clients that Lee (Casey Affleck) has difficulties. A blocked cistern or a leaky tap may be nothing compared with a testy female client looking for offence, or another one trying to flirt with him. Clients can be rude and demanding, or charming and welcoming but whatever they do, they get the same stony response. Over a series of interactions, we see that Lee has a bit of a problem. It comes into sharp focus when he throws a punch at strangers at a bar, for little apparent reason, a chilling reminder of the one-punch phenomenon that has emerged in recent years.
Life suddenly becomes complicated for Lee when his older brother dies prematurely. Joe (Kyle Chandler) succumbs to heart failure, leaving behind his teenage son, his only child, in Lee’s care. Sixteen-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a bolshy pain in the neck, if ever there was one, who believes he has all rights and no responsibilities. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Patrick. Is he obnoxious because he can’t grieve properly for his dad? Maybe. Either way, it turns out that both he and Lee have trouble managing their emotions in dealing with pain and loss.
I’ve read that the idea for this film was taken to Kenneth Lonergan, the screenwriter and director, by some high-profile friends of his in the business, including Matt Damon, with the request that he work on it and make it his own. Giving an emotionally traumatized young man the guardianship of a nephew who needs him is a great idea. When Patrick comes to understand that he can’t be close again with the mother (Gretchen Mol) who left the family years before, he sees that his Uncle Lee is all he has. Lee is it.
As the circumstances behind Lee’s withdrawal from the world are revealed, it is heart rending. He is broken and he can’t fix himself. Every now and then you hear about a trauma like this, and you wonder how the survivors could ever get over it. When Lee meets his former wife Randi (Michelle Williams) again, she has begun to rebuild. His own predicament is etched in stone.
Around ten years have passed since the family tragedy, and Lee still cannot move on. Will he heal eventually, the film asks? Lonergan, who has said he wanted to explore the limits to healing, hasn’t put a creative foot wrong.
Manchester by the Sea is a fine film that has been garlanded with awards and critical acclaim. As it didn’t speak to me as strongly as I expected it to, I’ve come to think that I needed to hear more from Lee, some of the inarticulate speech of his troubled heart. Even though the obvious point is that he cannot express or reach out, more of his inner life would have served the film well, with less of the reactive violence and more of Lee the person from screenwriter Lonergan. The filmmaker has the language—he is the son of psychiatrists—and co-wrote Analyze This, incidentally, the hilarious comedy with Robert de Niro and Billy Crystal as the mafioso and his psychiatrist. Lonergan had wonderful actors in Affleck and Williams. It would have worked.
The Massachusetts fishing village that serves as the landscape of a young man’s inner life, seems to be in a state of permafrost. I wonder how the community of Manchester by the Sea feels about this bleak tale of grief and loss that has brought it to everyone’s attention. It’s too bad that we never get to see the place in summer, but that would not have been true to the emotional arc of Lee’s journey.
Also published at Canberra Critics Circle