Waves of Grief Keep Rolling In During 'Manchester by the Sea'
By Andrea Thompson
Watching “Manchester by the Sea” is certainly a very interesting experience, and not always for the reasons intended. If not for its single glaring, gaping blind spot, there would be nothing but good to say about it. The film not only does almost everything right, it does it perfectly. The cinematography captures the setting exquisitely, the performances are top-notch, and the directing and writing, both courtesy of Kenneth Lonergan, is a marvel to behold.
The film follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who we quickly discover is the very definition of a broken man. He has a stable job as a plumber, but chooses to live alone, isolated both from his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and Manchester, the community in which he was once lovingly embraced.
However, Lee is forced to re-engage with the world after his last remaining connection, his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), passes away. When he travels to Manchester to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and make the final arrangements, Lee is shocked to learn that Joe has named him Patrick's guardian and made provisions for his return to Manchester.
As Lee absorbs the news and struggles to help Patrick cope with his grief while struggling with his own, we learn—through masterful flashbacks to happier times, then the moment where it all went wrong—the shocking reason why Lee's life fell apart. He's really been grieving for years, and his bond with Patrick will either be a new source of strength and stability, or the breaking point. The question is, which?
But...there is that blind spot, which turns into a black hole when real-life events are taken into account. “Manchester” is a poignant, emotional exploration of loss and death, as long as the men are the focus. However, the female characters are not given nearly as much depth, or really any at all, even Michelle Williams. Each one has either two roles to fill, either that of an adoring fan of whatever age-appropriate man is deemed their love interest, or that of the bitch. Every adult woman makes clear that she wants a connection with Lee, reinforcing that he COULD have any of them, if only his wounded heart would allow. Patrick is even worse in this area, not only openly dating two girls at once, but is also the subject of constant fawning on the part of all the other teenage girls shown. It's a puzzling, glaring oversight in a movie that otherwise sensitively explores the vulnerability at the heart of these two men as they struggle to comprehend the full scope of their loss.
It's even more problematic not only due to the disturbing allegations of harassment made by several women who've worked with Affleck, but also the unlikelihood of any consequences, as well as his complete lack of remorse. Sure, one could argue that art should be taken on its own terms. But when it's also so uncomfortably reflected off the screen, it's pretty damn hard to do. Maybe it shouldn't even be attempted in the first place.