One of the most critically-acclaimed and emotionally devastating films in recent memory, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” takes viewers on a roller coaster of emotions. The story of a Boston janitor (Casey Affleck) who returns to his hometown upon the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). Affleck’s nephew (Lucas Hedges) is without a guardian, and Affleck has been named in Chandler’s will as his guardian.
Affleck and Hedges grow their bond over the course of the film, but Affleck is by no means ready or willing to be a guardian. We learn about why Affleck is so emotionally withdrawn and the tragedy that led to the dissolving of his marriage to his wife (Michelle Williams) and his initial leaving Manchester-by-the-Sea. It was definitely an unfortunate series of events that lead to his house burning down, and though he isn’t culpable it weighs heavily on his mind.
Lee, Affleck’s character, is by no means likable. He isn’t personable, he wears a stupid dad hat the entire movie, and comes off as a jerk. He certainly wouldn’t describe himself that way. It isn’t just that makes mistakes, but he also shuts out the world completely. The film is very realistic in its depiction of how someone like Lee would exist in the real world. There is a concrete ending, but it’s clear that Lonergan wants to leave a lot unsaid, because he knows that real life rarely provides you with a tidy resolution.
It’s clear early on that Lee is dealing with his issues in the worst ways possible. Namely, he gets drunk. In a scene set at a Boston bar, an intoxicated Lee gets in a physical altercation. This is a scenario which repeats itself later in the film. Affleck’s portrayal indicates that Lee is simply too proud and would rather soak his trauma in alcohol than address it, for example maybe attending AA meetings.
There are countless Lees in the world. These aren’t people who’ve gone through the same events as Affleck’s character, but people who also cope with painful memories through drugs and alcohol. There’s no indication of Lee trying to ever rid himself of his drinking habit. Lee has let alcohol control his life, as evidenced in the film. He would need to stop drinking in order to begin repairing the damage he had caused to himself. However, he would also need to accept the help and guidance of others. The additional support would allow Lee to really comprehend the problems he’s facing.
“Manchester by the Sea” ends with Lee not seeming all that different than he did when the film started, but Affleck’s subdued performance is one that doesn’t make broad dramatic proclamations. You can only hope that Lee finds the help he needs after the film fades to black.