By Serena Detwyler
From the beginning of “Manchester by the Sea,” it looks like protagonist Lee Chandler is going to be uninteresting, a handyman living in a one room apartment in Boston who says “fuck” a few too many times. His prospects don’t look promising, but there is a vulnerability that makes Lee, played by Casey Affleck, endearing to the audience.
In Manchester by the Sea, it was a 20-minute walk to the convenience store that brought Lee Chandler’s world to the snowy ground. After a night of beer, weed and cocaine, he takes that walk and returns to see his house in flames, his wife hysterical, and his three children trapped inside. There was a sense dread from watching Lee, waiting for him to realize that those three small body bags held his children. What he forgot to do is what has him weeping in his brother’s arms.
After attempting suicide by way of a gun, and after a heart-wrenching confession to police, he leaves Manchester by the Sea for good. He’s called back years later, unbeknownst to him, to take custody of his sixteen-year-old, nephew, Patrick after his brother dies suddenly. Lee stubbornly refuses.
Cruel, selfish and weak is what Affleck’s character seems to portray, but flashbacks keep appearing, revealing spots of empathy for Lee. You hope he decides to stay. He desperately wants to return to Boston, but there is a hesitation. He wants to do right by his brother but doesn’t know if he can.
When Patrick has a panic attack in front of the freezer, imagining his father in one waiting to be buried, Lee kicks down the door to his room and refuses to leave until he calms down. These flashes of awkward humor are peppered into the film, to lift your spirit before dropping it again.
When he runs into his ex-wife, now desperate to take back the nasty things she said, the next scene shows him in a bar. You think he’s fine as he stoically drinks his beer, but his penchant for bar fights lands him on a couch, sobbing into his brother’s friend’s wife’s arms as she tries to clean his wounds.
Affleck’s character was always one of few words, expressing through action instead. It tears your heart out as you watch him punch through a window in his brother’s old bedroom. His memories of Manchester by the Sea threaten to throw his world into chaos again.
Unfortunately, it’s all for naught in the end. Lee can’t bring himself to stay. He isn’t strong enough to live in the place where his life fell apart once before. The guilt is still too much.
It made the ending even more heartbreaking as we see Lee relinquish custody of Patrick, but it was the ending that the film needed, despite wanting to see Lee find some sort of happiness by the end. The visuals of “Manchester by the Sea” keep you captivated, while Affleck’s performance stomps on your heart and hands it back to you, a crushed mess.