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And then you die

by Thom Yee


Manchester by the Sea images courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios

“Life isn’t fair.” Odds are you’re going to hear that on at least a few occasions in your time on Earth, and if your life goes a certain way or if you too often find yourself in the company of a particular sort of person, it’s a saying that could echo and repeat and may even start to form a pattern around your entire existence. Really, the only people who like to say “life isn’t fair” are those who don’t care, especially not about your sh*t. Another saying that’s become nearly as popular is “It gets better”, and there’s a certain type of person you’re likely to hear that from too — someone who does care but who doesn’t have as firm a grasp on things as they’d like you to believe. And, if we’re being honest, they probably don’t care that much about your sh*t either. If they did, they’d realize how ignorant, manipulative, and galling saying “it gets better” can be.

Perhaps something nearer to the truth of life and our existence, then, is that a lot of the time people really suck and life really sucks, and it’s only natural for you to quite often hate them both, but there are still other times that part of the reason they both seem to suck so much is on you. Probably a lot more often than you might think at first. That’s a thought that’s easier to digest in moments of clarity rather than anger or madness, but what’s true no matter which of those frames of mind you find yourself in is that you don’t know what’s going on inside somebody else’s head, and even when you have a pretty good idea, you don’t truly know why they’re acting the way they are. But you draw your own conclusions anyway, because you want to when they’re being nice, and because you’re wont to when they’re not. There are no guarantees in life, but that’s what makes it worth living. Things can swing wildly in either direction, good or bad, fair or unfair, but it’s what we don’t know and our lack of control over the situation that makes it all the more satisfying when you’re finally able to exert some force over the situation, to start steering the ship in your direction, even if only just a little bit. If everything was easy to do or if it was just a given that you would succeed, then winning would have no meaning. It wouldn’t matter. You wouldn’t care.

And then there are the times when your entire family dies in a fire or a woman cuts off your penis while you’re sleeping and tosses it out the window of a moving car. It’s okay for you to be mad then. Those are things that will never get better.

What’s it about?

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a quiet, solitary life as a janitor in Boston, but when his older brother Joe passes away (played by Kyle Chandler, no relation; well, yes relation in the movie, but no relation in real life — it’s weird when actors share last names with the characters they’re playing), he’s unexpectedly charged with the care of Joe’s son, Patrick, and forced to move back to Manchester. Still struggling with his own personal demons, Lee must find common ground with Patrick while finally coming to grips with the events that caused him to leave Manchester in the first place. Or not. Things don’t always happen that way.

Lately it seems there are more reasons than ever to be divided, with more new things driving wedges between us every day (at least that’s how it feels now rather than where we thought we were headed eight years ago), but if you break who and what we are all the way down to base components, I think there are really only two kinds of people in the world: those who are fine and those who are broken. And it’s usually pretty obvious which of the two we’re dealing with when we first meet them. When we first meet Affleck’s Lee Chandler, it would be an understatement to say that he’s a man not living his best life. Something’s wrong, something’s amiss. You already know this movie’s premise, but there’s something more than just the death of his brother Joe and guardianship of his nephew Patrick that’s throwing things off. The people Lee deals with at his job as a janitor can be awful, but he’s not necessarily much better. He’s not a jerk and he knows how to be polite, but you get a sense of self-imposed exile from the man, like he’s letting something hold him him back, and the only way he has left to openly and honestly express himself is through anger and frustration. Something just isn’t working, deep on the inside.

When Lee temporarily moves back to Manchester to take care of Patrick, you quickly find out just how connected the people of this small town are, and even those who don’t personally know Lee are aware of “the Lee Chandler” and what he’s been through, something they know before we as an audience find out. The town and its people all have a complex, intertwined, and pre-supposed relationship with Lee, and whether it’s the times he speaks with the hospital workers who tell him what happened to his brother, his interactions with people at the bar or with the people he meets in organizing funeral arrangements, or his attempts to find temporary work while staying in Manchester, the aboutness of Manchester by the Sea is formed even more by Lee’s relationship with the hometown he’d tried to leave behind than it is with what has happened to his brother and what will happen with his nephew.

Is it any good?

In most of the ways that matter and all of the ways that add up, build, and coalesce into an Oscar contender, Manchester by the Sea is a very strong, very meticulously crafted movie, but make no mistake, it is absolutely Oscar bait, and if you think that those Academy guys always nominate boring movies that nobody sees or if you avoid movies that are outwardly more downer than upper, then turn around and run (don’t walk) away. The first time I saw Manchester by the Sea back at last year’s EIFF, I literally called it “Bad Things Happen: The Movie” and chose not to review it. Clearly I feel differently about it now, a feeling mirrored by its position on our 2016 Year in Review, but it took time, a second viewing, and a touch more contemplation to get there. Notice that I still did choose to see it a second time. I think that’s an important point.manchester-by-the-sea-lee-patrick

For me, what’s most striking about Manchester by the Sea is its honesty. There are a number of ways that a movie with a protagonist-must-take-care-of-a-kid-he/she-wasn’t-prepared-for premise could go, some comedic and most heartwarming, but the truth is it’s rarely if ever a good situation. Though things get better for our leads over the course of the movie, you can’t truly say that Affleck’s Lee, his nephew Patrick, or any of the people affected by his older brother Joe’s death are better for going through what they go through in Manchester by the Sea, nor is there any argument to be made that Lee is a stronger, better person for going through what originally caused him to leave Manchester. To be clear, Joe’s death is the inciting incident in this movie, and what happens because of it is technically what this movie follows, but once you find out why Lee left, you understand why he is the way he is and why his past experience dominates and almost literally haunts every aspect of his remaining life. He’s fundamentally broken in a way that will leave huge [metaphorical] scars for the rest of his life. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie between Lee and his ex-wife (played by Michelle Williams), equally affected by what happened to Lee but herself more able to move on, that is absolutely heartbreaking, and I can’t imagine the scene not moving you. Well, maybe if you’re one of those people who likes to say “Life isn’t fair” at everything.

What makes Manchester by the Sea work well rather than something that tips over into a devastating pit of despair the likes of which you’d regret seeing, however, is how real it feels. There are scenes in this movie that make almost every one of the people in it — star, supporting role, minor character or otherwise — look like a complete a**hole, and because we can recognize those types of moments from our own experiences, they feel like they’re coming from a place of honesty. All of these people have clear flaws, none of them come across as saints (not even Lee’s deceased brother), and many minor characters make bad first impressions, never to come back later to redeem or explain themselves. Scenes that take place earlier with Lee, Joe, and a younger Patrick on Joe’s boat really sell what a typical and happy life they all had before the main events of this movie, and they’re the kind of moments you could watch forever in the same way you joyfully recall the victorious moments and treasured memories of your past. In the present day, Patrick’s interactions with his estranged mother are chilling and so telling of her state of mind despite how brief and superficially pleasant they may be because you can feel everything happening between the lines and how cold and horrible the answer to the question “Why doesn’t Patrick just live with his mom?” really is. There’s an entire scene spent on characters yelling across a crowded room and misunderstanding each other because they can’t quite make out what the other is saying that accomplishes almost nothing and would become a deleted scene in a different, broader kind of movie, but it’s essential here. And Patrick is such a little sh*t, but not in a way that ever makes you hate him or feel pity for him. You end up thinking about these people and characters the same way you think about people in your own life, with all of the depth and meaning and awful conclusions that doing so entails. It’s fully realized and it never lies to you about what’s really going on.manchester-by-the-sea-boat

With such a doom-and-gloom plot, it’s also important to note that Manchester by the Sea is heavy-handed, but it’s not a constant downhill drag and it’s never directly depressing even though, at its heart, it’s mostly about how hard it is to be around people when you don’t want to live anymore. It’s not a movie full of heroic moments or personal triumphs, and it doesn’t provide its protagonists with moments to prove their mettle or (re)find their worth, but it tempers its often operatic self-seriousness with intelligence and humour. It’s frequently hilarious actually, but in a careful, observant way that feels right and sort of graceful, and, through a twisted sort of lens, you could view it as a comedy. It’s certainly much sharper comedically than last year’s Ghostbusters or Sausage Party were at any rate.

So should I see it?

If you’ve read this far, it probably comes as no surprise that Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally-charged, heart-wrenching human drama and not a formula-driven comedy or an effects-heavy actioner. The solution to the problems people face in this movie aren’t going to be solved once Iron Man shows up to make fun of the bad guys, nor is Casey’s older brother Ben going to swoop in as Batman to give his overly brutal and punishing response to the whole affair until he finds out the enemy’s mom is also named Martha. You really have to be up for a movie like Manchester by the Sea, and I wouldn’t blame you if you aren’t right now. I might not like you that much as a person, however, if you’re the type of person who never will be.

There are a lot of raw, vicious emotions running around in Manchester by the Sea, and it may be hard to settle in with what it’s trying to say. There’s even a chance you won’t think that highly of it, particularly with how much acclaim it’s received and the attention it’s gotten at the Oscars, but it’s a movie that displays a real, fine understanding of misery and loss and why those things are so essential to the human experience, something that takes an enormous amount of talent and ability to accomplish. It never takes the easy way out and it never shirks the responsibility of being a hard, downbeat story, but, despite all of that, I have to give it credit for being a movie I could watch again, recently and months after I first saw it, to write this review. In its own way, it’s actually very hopeful, and the more I think about it, it almost feels like a full-length movie version of the “It’s not your fault” scene from Good Will Hunting. Just a good, warm, knowing hug, one that you desperately need after years of putting up a tough front. Except in Manchester by the Sea it technically is his fault.

Thom’s Manchester by the Sea final score


On the Edge

  • Oh God, Patrick’s band! That may actually be the saddest part of Manchester by the Sea.

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