The Expression and Embrace of Grief in Manchester By The Sea

Analyzing 2016’s best, most powerful film through its thoughtfully deliberate rumination on the importance – and necessity – of pain.

WARNING: this article contains spoilers for Manchester by the Sea.

Grief is a complicated process.

Every one of us handles grief and undergoes our own mourning periods in incredibly varied ways (not exactly breaking new ground here, I know), thus it should be hard to make the case that it is, in fact, a universal concept. And yet, grief and sorrow are possibly the most relatable and humanizing concepts we as a species collectively share, no matter our beliefs or culture, and that makes it incredibly fertile territory to be exploited in film.

Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan understands all this implicitly – some of us express our pain by lashing out, taking our anger and frustration and helplessness out on an unjust and unfair world. Others may do the opposite and close off completely, preferring to ruminate on our loss all on our own, in our own time, in our own way.

But regardless of whether it’s through revealing exactly none of the turmoil going on inside, being an open book and unabashedly wearing our emotions on our sleeve, or anything and everything in between, experiencing loss is clearly a natural and inevitable part of life, and Manchester by the Sea’s most potent and devastating message suggests (quite admirably, I may add) that grief isn’t necessarily something to ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from. Maybe, just maybe it’s something to be embraced.

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Casey Affleck, in the performance of a lifetime, plays Lee Chandler’s apparent pain through a reserved and understated fog of depression. Lee is a brooding loner, working as a jack-of-all-trades handyman in a wintry Bostonian apartment complex. Gritting his teeth and grimacing his way through tedious jobs (a monotonous haze of shoveling snow, fixing drippy faucets, and unclogging toilets) and taking his frustrations out on even more tedious tenants, it soon becomes clear something is very wrong here.

The opening flashback encourages this contrast by showing us a younger, more vibrant Lee doting on his young nephew Patrick and trading good-natured barbs with his older brother Joe while fishing on their beloved family boat…meanwhile, the more cynical Lee we proceed to watch comes across as detached, wallowing in his own mysterious grief and self-loathing for reasons initially withheld from us.

We quickly realize he’s the kind of guy who mopes around at bars after work, quietly drinking his woes away and coldly turning down beautiful women who are obviously trying to hit on him; he even goes out of his way to pick fights with other patrons over the most trivial offenses. This is a man dead-set on punishing himself for, well, something.

One can’t help but get the feeling that this emotionally unavailable minimum wage worker is wasting away here, purposefully hiding from the world in order to cope. Even when he receives the fateful call about Joe’s rapidly deteriorating health and hightails it to Manchester, he still doesn’t snap out of this seemingly years-long funk and his chilly demeanor remains largely unchanged.

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In stark contrast, Lucas Hedges’ Patrick has grown into a simple 16-year-old busy juggling hockey, a fittingly mediocre teen band made up of friends, and even a girl or two by the time Lee arrives to deliver the devastating news about his father’s passing. Many Oscar-bait films would’ve chosen to define Patrick entirely by his grief, toning down or even entirely omitting Patrick’s hobbies and passions in favor of cheap and cliché sentimentality that we’ve seen countless times before. Not here.

Instead, Manchester has the novel idea of treating the character with respect, granting him the full spectrum of teenage impulses and attitudes even while studying how such a bevy of life-changing events in such short order (his father’s death, Lee potentially becoming his guardian and stubbornly insisting on moving him out of the only home he’s known, and the reappearance of his estranged mother) would inevitably impact someone in that position. The results are fascinating as we watch an outgoing, fun-loving kid who projects a deceptively impressive handle on the situation gradually deteriorate…until the cracks finally break through, to devastating effect.

Kenneth Lonergan’s script sets up this dichotomy between Lee and Patrick’s vastly different approaches to grief and proceeds to mine it for everything it’s got – humor, awkwardness, poignancy, heartbreak…nothing is off the table when these estranged family members are suddenly thrown together in the most difficult of circumstances.

To his credit, Lonergan doesn’t stop there.

Fully intent on driving home the point, Manchester takes an impressive and almost excruciating amount of time depicting the messy aftermath of death through the eyes of both Lee and Patrick. When Lee first arrives at the hospital only to learn that his brother passed away while he was still en route, we never cut away from his moment-by-moment ordeal of coming to grips with the situation: numbly talking to doctors, remembering when Joe was first diagnosed with terminal heart disease, seeing his body and saying one final goodbye, figuring out which family members to call and what arrangements need to be made, and all the while attempting to suppress his emotions in order to do whatever needs to be done next.

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Balanced against such heavy-hitting and hard-to-watch segments, Lonergan also makes sure to capture several little mundane moments of everyday life that take on a whole new meaning in the context of such fresh pain and loss.

A brief misunderstanding between uncle and nephew over the phrase “Let’s go” while pulling into the hospital parking lot turns into a tense spat where emotions boil over and insight is gained on the fragile mental state of these characters. An all-to-relatable instance of forgetting where the car is parked on a frigid day of visiting funeral homes ratchets up the underlying tension between the two and gives us even more access to emotions and feelings that never would’ve been expressed otherwise. And then on the other end of the spectrum, a very awkward meet-cute between Lee and the mother of (one of) Patrick’s girlfriend(s) serves as a diversion for the two kids to get some time alone in a way that’s both character-focused and genuinely hilarious.

It feels counter-intuitive, but the surprising amount of humor present all throughout  Manchester by the Sea seems like a mission statement of sorts, perfectly encapsulating the mood and tone Lonergan is striving for.

But every film needs balance, and the funniest sad movie of the year wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if it didn’t include the harrowing details of Lee’s personal tragedy as it’s finally unveiled in all its enormity. In perhaps one of Manchester’s most horrifying scenes, the reading of Joe’s will and his posthumous intentions to have Lee move back to Manchester and become Patrick’s legal guardian triggers flashbacks of the entire series of events from that one night long ago: the drunken party Lee hosted at his house until the early hours of the morning, stepping out of the house and going on a long walk to restock on alcohol, and the haunting sound of sirens as Lee comes back to find his entire home consumed in flames…with his three young children hopelessly trapped inside.

Once he is cleared of all charges (“It isn’t a crime to forget to put the screen on your fireplace, Lee”, a policeman gently reassures him), yet another gut-punch is thrown our way as we watch a visibly broken and resigned Lee snatch the gun off a passing officer and attempt to take his own life while his father and brother look on.

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This is where all the carefully-placed flashbacks come into play, informing us of how a affectionately devoted father and husband ended up a broken shell of himself. His grief-stricken wife Randi leaves him in a messy and vitriolic divorce, his guilt and self-loathing compels him to move out of Manchester and, as we jump back to the present-day narrative, suddenly everything we thought we knew about Lee snaps into place as we realize just how big of an emotional toll it’s taken him to come back to the town that was ground zero for so much regret, pain, and suffering.

This, however, is where the story comes to a crossroad of sorts: whether to commit to giving Lee a redemptive (yet trite) arc of facing his inner demons and coming out on top as a healed individual, or to take a more realistic but riskier approach. Luckily, Kenneth Lonergan has too much respect for his audience, his themes, his characters, and the complexities of life itself to tie everything into a neat and tidy bow – he chooses the path that results in a richer, much more nuanced study on the nature of grief.

The story forges ahead to Joe’s funeral and Lee’s inevitable difficulty with Randi’s appearance (accompanied by her new husband and newborn child), Patrick reconnecting with his long-lost mother Elise and coming to grips with the fact that she’s now a stranger to him, and the ongoing conflict between Lee and Patrick over selling the Chandler family boat. After coming up with the money to pay to keep the boat running and sending Patrick off on a joyride, Lee unexpectedly runs into Randi in a chance encounter on the street.

Tense small talk soon gives way to something much more intense as years of pent-up guilt, regret, and pain spill out in Manchester’s other show-stopping, heartbreaking scene.

With such an old wound opened fresh again, Lee can barely even stumble his way through the unspeakable emotions overwhelming him, apologetically (yet abruptly) cutting off conversation and leaving Randi in tears even after professing her love for him. He returns to alcohol and picks yet another drunken fight at a bar. Severely beaten and at his absolute lowest point, we finally see him break down and properly grieve for the first time in the entire story. This motivates him to arrange for Patrick’s adoption by close friends of the family in Manchester, allowing Lee to return home.

This might not seem like a proper way to wrap up the narrative, but that’s exactly what Lonergan’s script does – Lee quietly confides to Patrick that the pain is just too much: “I can’t do it. I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” Patrick tearfully accepts the new arrangement despite having grown closer to his uncle Lee and changing his mind about Lee being his guardian, they both attend Joe’s burial, and then the film comes full-circle as the pair take one last poignant fishing trip on their boat when the credits roll.

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And that’s it.

By the end of the film, Lee never conquers his demons. He never finds a way to reconcile his past tragedies in Manchester with being Patrick’s guardian and living there permanently, and he doesn’t really receive any proper resolution in the most traditional sense of the word. And yet somehow, that’s precisely what gives Manchester by the Sea one of the most cathartic final moments of any movie this year.

The last 30 minutes or so is where the film’s entire message coalesces and shines brightest: it’s not about overcoming grief. Instead, Manchester argues that the grief and pain may never completely go away. We may reconcile with those we’ve hurt or with those who’ve hurt us, we can find some comforting measure of closure, and we might even get back to some semblance of normalcy…but experiencing loss changes a person, for better or worse.

At the end of the day, perhaps acknowledging that grief and embracing its impact is more helpful than listening to the hundreds of shallow, feel-good ‘moving on’ stories we’ve seen done in the past. Maybe it’s enough to simply have someone to share that pain with, someone who can understand and help bring healing along the way.

Elevated by a concluding message that doesn’t pull any punches, Manchester by the Sea proves to be a downer, but without ever being dour. Full of loss, tragic mistakes and regret, it successfully navigates a complicated subject and arrives at a deceptively optimistic endpoint; one that hopefully helps and inspires others just as much as it did for me.

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