‘There’s nothing there.’
That’s all Lee Chandler could blurt out when he’s forced by his ex-wife to come to terms with their traumatic past. The intensely repressed protagonist of Manchester by the Sea is so broken within that he has ceased to recognise his own feelings, let alone talk about them.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck in a powerful, searing performance) works as a janitor in Boston away from his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts. He has ghosts to hide from and any association whatsoever with Manchester threatens to bring those nightmares to life. He drowns himself, therefore, in a deluge of pipe repairs, leak pluggings, trash disposals and any other errand he can lay his hands on to keep himself occupied and sane.
We are piqued by his absolute unwillingness to start a conversation with a stranger, irked by his lack of social niceties and genuinely concerned when he gets into brawls with strangers in a bar for the heck of it. He’s visibly stifling himself to the extreme and his efforts are discomforting, even painful, to watch.
Lee has to eventually confront his demons when he’s forced to become his nephew’s legal guardian to honour his deceased brother’s will. At the lawyer’s office back in Manchester, on a winter afternoon, we are finally told through a flashback the most dreadful part of Lee’s story. On another frigid winter night some years ago, a drunk and drugged out Lee had left the fireplace at his home burning, without the screen. The fire burnt his house down to ashes and engulfed his three kids, fast asleep. In a voiceover, the lawyer says, as much for himself as for everyone else in the town, ‘Nobody can appreciate what you’ve been through.’
Grief is probably the single most portrayed emotion in cinema. We, as viewers, are so used to its depiction that we are subconsciously aware of the tools that will be commonly deployed for it. This familiarity makes it difficult for us to even get affected by it at times. Tears, facial or physical contortions (when subtle or restrained), howls and hysteria (at its most melodramatic).
With Casey Affleck, grief is flesh and blood in Manchester by the Sea. Throughout the film, barring just three sequences, Affleck has to portray Lee Chandler post the trauma that alters him forever and hence his performance is warranted to be nothing but one-dimensional. Hunched shoulders, sparing with words (monosyllabic mostly), minimal eye contact, quivering eyes when he does look straight, long silences and occasional fits of rage are all that he has got to offer for his act. And Affleck offers them with a piercing doggedness in one of the most ‘felt’ performances in recent years. Affleck is grief personified; his unwavering sincerity to avoid any false notes in portraying a man refusing to let go of what haunts him tires you as a viewer. Randi, his ex-wife (Michelle Williams in a small but pivotal and affecting role), echoes your feeling when she tells him, ‘You can’t just die!’
Over the past couple of months, we and our immediate kin, or our extended family members, or maybe one of our friends, neighbours, colleagues or acquaintances, have come to know loss, unnaturally and when we were absolutely unprepared for it. We were, instead, preparing to spend more years with, talk with, listen to, share meals with, travel with, love, fight with, or go to the movies with the ones we lost. We were looking ahead to mostly everything else except securing a hospital bed and the required medical care for them amidst all the uncertainty, and living with the fear of losing them for hours and days together until they were gone. We weren’t prepared for what hit us, in the space of just a few weeks.
Towards the end of the film, Lee, insistent upon giving up the custody of his nephew and leaving town, says, ‘I can’t beat it.’ Lee Chandler, in a way, lets us know how some of us will perhaps be grieving now – devoid of any performance, shorn of noise, alone and unable to deal with it at times. The death of a loved one, particularly when sudden and untimely, changes us in a somewhat permanent way that we are perhaps unable to ever make sense of. It may take us days or even years to come to terms with our loss but unlike Lee, many of us will eventually come to live with it and hopefully so. Like him, though, we will be broken in places within, for good.
The grief in Manchester by the Sea is as achingly real as it can get, and at its most human.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.