Manchester by the Sea. What do you do when your father dies? Nothing.
Set in a small Massachusetts town, Manchester by the Sea follows Casey Affleck (Lee Chandler, brother of Joe) and Lucas Hedges (Patrick Chandler, son of Joe) as they mourn the “sudden” death of brother and father, played by Kyle Chandler (“Joe” Chandler).
The central conflict is grief. Grief is the protagonist, the antagonist, and silent partner.
Hedges’ portrayal as the son who has lost his father could earn him an Oscar nomination (It has already netted him a SAG nom). Hedges’ character has anger issues during hockey, plays in a half-serious garage band, has two girlfriends, refuses to sell his father’s boat, and wants to keep his life going as normally as possible. When Hedges is told of his father’s death, his reaction is “muted.” He is unwilling to see his father’s body. He doesn’t break down and sob. He just wants to know if he can have his girlfriend over for sex later that night (I mean, who wouldn’t think that?).
These may seem like odd reactions to the death of a father. However, they are in keeping. When one loses a father or any loved one, life for the person remaining continues. There’s no pause. No timeout. No moratorium on life. The seconds still tick the same.The days continue.
Affleck gives the performance of his career as the older foil to Hedges. A guy who had the same youthful qualities of masculine bravado, which Hedges’ character is now emulating. However, his life has been undone by his past. He has lost his kids. He has lost his wife. And the small town of Manchester still remembers him for all his faults rather than the life he could lead if he were only forgiven (so much for small town hospitality). Affleck also displays his grief in private. Most of what he exhibits is shock, and the drive to fulfill the final wishes of his brother. When a loved one dies, grief can be slowly abated by the toilsome effort of planning their funeral. Re-living their past. Living your future.
There are few instances where grief spills over. Manchester feels like its entire 137 minute run time. For the most part, the film is still and quiet, causing a calming effect. The audience is living life with the inhabitants because of the real time effect caused by the pacing. When grief does spill out, it is cathartic and overwhelming. Hedges’ reaction to meat spilling out of his freezer, while comparing it to his father’s body remaining in a freezer because of the cold winter ground is a reminder that in grief, the insignificant is significant.
Affleck’s avoidance of open grief is depicted through getting into bar fights and punching through a window. It’s pointedly encapsulated when he sees his ex-wife, Michelle Williams (Randi) with her new child. Randi wants to have the talk they should have had years prior. And as she sobs, screams, and winces with every painful memory flooding back to her, Affleck is the opposite. He is near tears, but never in tears. Even as Williams approaches him for any humanely embrace, Affleck has an arm raised to block her off, as if putting one last wall against the heartbreak. Williams and Affleck are near Oscar nomination locks in their respective categories.
When I watched Manchester by the Sea, I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand the undertones of masculine bravado. The defense mechanisms. The sublimity of non-expression, and the weight of expression present in the avoidance of a moment that is unavoidable. The film’s power comes with giving the insignificant, significance. It requires revisiting. Like the memories of a loved one, which carried nothing in the moment, but now are more valuable than any precious belonging.
Manchester is a film of grief. But it’s never the “traditional” one seen in your daytime soap. It’s reality. It’s meat falling out of a freezer. The boat you refuse to sell. The past that doesn’t know its place, and the murky future. But at its heart, it’s……
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