Looking at his wife in the film “Manchester by the Sea”, Lee Chandler points to his chest and says,”There is nothing there.”
If this film provides an image of anything else, it is what happens to a man when as author Gertrude Stein said “there is no there there”. Lee is an empty vessel.
The vibrancy in Lee leaves him early in the tale after he makes a huge mistake. Thereafter, he is a shell.
Lee’s persona is fine as long as he can keep to himself. Indeed, he seems to prefer it.
When we are introduced to him, he is a custodian at an apartment complex in the Boston area. Lee is a good janitor, but he is not exactly a person who wins friends and influences people. When he encounters a crabby woman who has a water leak in her apartment, he curses at her, and gets himself into trouble with his boss.
The only reason Lee’s boss relents from disciplining him is that he convinces the man how good he is at taking care of the four buildings in the complex. The janitor is a jerk, but at least he is good at his job.
“Manchester by the Sea” uses a series of flashbacks to fill in the reasons as to why Lee has become the man he is and the effects of his massive mistake on him and others. I am no psychiatrist, but it seems that like a lot of men Lee takes refuge in his work to escape from himself and the anguish bubbling inside of him.
Casey Affleck is masterful as Lee’s, reflecting his internal angst in his facial expressions. In general, he is a curmudgeon before his time and almost completely uncommunicative. Lee only talks when he has to.
However, an event occurs which forces him out of his isolated existence. Lee’s brother Joe (played by the wonderful Kyle Chandler) dies, which is not totally unexpected since in one of the flashbacks we are told that he only has a life expectancy of a few years.
For Lee, though, what IS unexpected is that Joe has made him the guardian of his 16-year old son Patrick. Out of the blue he has to be responsible for someone besides himself and a bunch of flats. In addition, he has to return to the town where he is a pariah because of his terrible blunder.
The best aspect of “Manchester by the Sea” is the acting of Affleck as suggested above. He offers a portrayal of Lee that shows the changeable parts of the character’s personality.
The flashbacks show that Lee was not always a sullen jackass. Before his massive error, he could laugh, party with his friends and play with the younger Patrick with gusto. Affleck manages the difficult task of depicting the influence of his character’s personal disaster on his personality with great talent.
The tragic story is a good one, but its telling is hindered by what seems to be a hurried attempt to tell it. The audience is led quickly from flashback, to scenic views of the town Manchester-by- the-Sea to point of view shots of Lee driving through town. At times I felt like I was viewing my grandfather’s Super 8 home movies.
Furthermore, I had difficulty identifying the roles of the characters. The film does not have too many characters, but I still had trouble discerning who was who during its initial section, partly because of the hurried pace. In this respect, “Manchester by the Sea” goes to the extreme in attempting to correctly show us the story instead of telling us. Key details are unclear.
As a believer I also was unhappy with the tired old mechanism of portraying Christians as people who belong in an institution. Despite my personal distaste for his task, Matthew Broderick as Jeffrey, the new man of Joe’s unbalanced wife, pulls off the part of the creepy Christian quite well. Patrick’s meeting with him leads to a brief but humorous discussion of who is a Christian with Lee on the drive home.
Despite these drawbacks, Affleck’s performance carries the film and makes it worth seeing. If he is not nominated for an Oscar for best actor, then there is no justice.
As for the story itself, it is not uplifting, but it does deal with an important issue. The difficult question “Manchester by the Sea” poses is if a man who has done something awful can experience redemption. What the film and Affleck reveal is that it takes not only a village for that to occur, but also the man himself.