‘Manchester By the Sea’, Explained

Grief is an art. Everyone perceives it differently, everyone experiences it differently and everyone has a different way of handling it. This is also because a loss does not take the same form for everyone. If a man dies, his wife, his daughter, his son, his parents, his friends, everyone suffers a different kind of loss by the death of just one man. So, in truth, there is really no way in which any one of them can understand another one’s sorrow. They all know that they are on the same boat, although standing on different ends and with different sets of responsibilities. Each has a different angle, a different perspective with which they see the things in front of them. But, there is one thing that they have in common. They are all moving ahead, with the boat.

‘Manchester By the Sea’ by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is a portrait of such loss, grief and sadness, painted in the colours of its multi-layered characters. One of the best films of its year, it is also one of the best films to portray grief in its most realistic form on the screen. A lot of things made it stand out from other films of the same vein, the most prominent one being its closeness to reality. Lonergan, in his third film, took a very subtle and humane approach for presenting this story to us. And it was because it was told this way that it felt more impactful and all the more surreal.


This film begins with Lee who is a janitor working on people’s problems- fixing their pipes, fans and toilets; just the mundane tasks. And then, while shovelling the snow, he gets the call about his brother who has been hospitalized. Before he can reach the hospital, his brother dies and Lee is left to handle the aftermath. He has to make arrangements for the funeral, take care of other financial stuff, and most importantly, he has to take care of his nephew, Patrick. Lee discovers that his brother had named him as the legal guardian for Patrick. But, Lee, whom we see as quite an unattached and a rather incoherent person, has demons from his past that he hasn’t been able to bury yet.

The despondency of this film is brought out by a lot of elements that the filmmakers chose to incorporate in it. Apart from the dreariness of the wintry weather, the music influences the mood of the scenes. For the most part, it seems as disconnected as the protagonist of the film. The withdrawn character of Lee is represented in the way the scenes are filmed. We see a lot of things, especially the crucial moments that have the potential of raw emotion, from a distance. It is the indication that the viewers are outsiders to the characters’ situations and are as alien to them as a stranger who walks by commenting on Lee’s parenting. The music takes over a lot of scenes and often obscures the dialogues. This further enhances the effect of us watching a family going through something bad and that we are just outside looking in. It’s like the director is telling us that we can’t understand others’ pain, we can just be there and watch them grow through it.

The Different Shades of Grief

There is a lot going on in this film. There are so many things that each character is going through and yet, as it all plays out in front of us, it doesn’t seem to amount to much. ‘Manchester By the Sea’ received a great deal of acclaim from critics, was nominated for multiple Oscars and practically swept the nominations in all sorts of award shows. Yet, there are people who didn’t find it worthy of all the attention it was getting. Their logic was that the film was paced slow to the point of boring, that there wasn’t anything really going on in it, and that for a film about grief, it didn’t really have many emotions. All in all, they didn’t quite get it.

And that is exactly what the problem is. These people didn’t get this film. Not that I am questioning anyone’s ability of understanding films. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And it’s okay that they didn’t find this one to their taste. But, here is the thing, the not getting it part, we could say that Hollywood itself is to blame for it. Whenever in a film we see someone die, or a funeral, or we see someone dealing with the aftermath, these scenes are more often than not accompanied by a truckload of tears, a lot of hugging, perhaps some letters from the deceased and a soliloquy where the protagonist talks to god or the dead person to let out their feelings. Through all this upheaval and drama, in the end, we see the character letting go or moving on from their grief and sadness.

No such thing happens in ‘Manchester By the Sea’. Not a single one. And perhaps this is why it was hard for people to comprehend how this film was portraying its characters as grieving. To clear these points, the first thing we need to understand is that Hollywood rarely depicts grief as it happens in real life. People have gotten used to seeing the characters weeping their heart out at one point or another, and because it didn’t happen in this film, it felt unresolved to people. The resolution of the characters’ situation provides the viewers with the belief that the character has succeeded in moving on from their tragedy. But, things don’t really happen this way in real life. “Moving on” isn’t really a phase that ends. And this film presents this reality in its crystal-clear form.

In real life, the sadness doesn’t go away after one moment of epiphany, or a sign from the loved one. In real life, it stays forever and you have to deal with it, forever. Everyone bears their burden in a different way and that’s why everyone walks a different way under the load of it. Things, scenes and dialogues seem mundane and not dramatic enough in this film because that is exactly how they are in real life. The pain of the characters doesn’t end after the camera stops rolling. Maybe, it ends for the audience because the story is over for them because the story has been “concluded”. But, the characters, the people who carry such pain in real life, know that the moon is still there even when you’re not looking.

There’s Nothing There

The protagonist of this film is Lee, a broken and forlorn character, acted out with perfection by Casey Affleck. The film begins with Lee being playful and funny with his nephew, Patrick. It gives us the image of how happy and full of life of he is. In the next scene, we see him fixing things for people he doesn’t even seem interested in talking to. He comes across as a cold, unwelcoming and perpetually tired person who’d rather sit alone and have a beer in his basement rather than interacting with people. From the first five minutes, we understand that something truly terrible must have happened to him that turned him from a ball of sunshine into a pit of darkness.

The next sign that blares red about an unhealable wound from the past is when he gets the news about his brother. Of course, he feels bad about it and it must tear at his heart, but he doesn’t show it. At all! When the doctor shows his consolation in a speech that felt rehearsed (considering that the doctor must have had to handle such situations on a daily basis), Lee’s reaction is “Fuck that”. And while it might seem rude, it is quite understandable. A similar thing happens when Lee and Patrick go to the funeral home to discuss the arrangements and the man offers his sympathies, again in a practised tone, and Patrick comments on how ridiculous it was.

“What is with that guy, all that serious and sombre act! Doesn’t he realise people know he does this every day?”

The point is that people like Lee and Patrick (and this behaviour isn’t something that is limited to just men) don’t want sympathies as a form of formality. For the most part, offering sympathies IS a formality. People who have suffered the loss feel connected to each other through it and in that sense, for them, everyone else is an outsider. They don’t talk about it to others or don’t feel like opening up to others because they believe that ‘outsiders’ will not understand what they are going through. To an extent, this is true. The outsiders talk more and judge further. Lee knows this very well because he had to face the judgement of the whole town. The fire that destroyed everything for him is something that he feels responsible for. He wants to be punished for that and thinks that he deserves the hatred that he receives from Randi. However, he can’t handle the hatred that he gets from other people in the town. Although it is not shown in the film, we can understand how hard life must have been for Lee after the fire. Even though he had a loving brother, life for him was over in Manchester. And it still is.

After his brother’s death, Lee had to stay in town for taking care of Patrick and all other things. His job in Boston doesn’t start until July and in the meantime, he tries to find jobs in Manchester. But he doesn’t get any. Lee hasn’t forgiven himself, but neither has the town. He knows this, and this is why he can’t stay there. He can’t forget what happened, and the whole town is a constant reminder of that. They aren’t really helping him in moving on.

Even though his mistake was a pretty common one and if it hadn’t had such a monstrous impact in his life, he would have probably tossed it off on jokes without thinking twice about it. But, it did impact his life in the worst possible way and for this, he can never forgive himself. He wants to take care of Patrick. He must want to be there for his nephew. They only have each other now. But, considering the colossal blunder that he had made in the past, he couldn’t take it upon himself to be the guardian for Patrick and make another blunder. He knows this from the start, and while he has almost made up his mind about how everything will work, he seems to be considering the idea of being there for Patrick. But then, another instance reminds him of the past and he realises that he’d rather stay away from his nephew. Again, it was a quite common mistake to make. Getting distracted while cooking something, being on a call, or watching TV, or dozing off, and burning the food in the process. But, for Lee, it is the reminder of another small mistake he made that resulted in the death of his children. At that moment, he knows how it is going to be. That is the moment that makes it final- turning over Patrick’s guardianship to George.

One might think why Lee hasn’t moved on from his mistake. In any other film, the protagonist would’ve taken this opportunity to be the parent that they couldn’t be for their own children. They would have found comfort, and perhaps closure, in this and moved on. But, “moving on” is overrated. The loss of one’s children isn’t something that can be moved on from. As Randi said, her heart was broken and it will stay broken. There is no mending of the wound that was afflicted on her by her children’s death. And that goes for Lee, too. One might argue that Randi is the living, breathing and quite the closest example for Lee to find comfort in someone else and get past the grief that haunts him. After the tragedy, her life didn’t stop. She has a husband and a child now, and life goes on. Why can’t Lee do this? Why doesn’t he try to connect to people? Why does he fend off advances that are quite repetitively made on him? If he tried to open up more, he, too, could have a family. Why does he flatly decline anyone who tries to approach him?

This is because, as I said before, his grief is different from Randi’s. Yes, it was both of them who lost their own children in that fire. However, Randi didn’t feel responsible for it. She wasn’t the one who forgot to put up the screen and went away to buy more beer for herself. She wasn’t the one who was drunk at two in the morning and she wasn’t the one who held on to the groceries while watching her house burn in front of her eyes. She has to live with the sorrow, but not with the shame. It is this shame, this guilt for being responsible for the death of his children that weighs Lee down.

When the police question him about what might have happened, he tells them everything in a tone that suggests that he is confessing to a crime. He admits that it was him who lit the fire that burnt his house to the ground and one can see in his eyes that he is ready to be punished for it. So, when the cops tell him to go (in fact, they offer him a ride home!), he is taken by surprise. When they tell him that they won’t “crucify” him for making a simple mistake, he is baffled. Because he came prepared, to be arrested and thrown into jail. Perhaps, crucifying him would have brought some comfort to his soul because he would have been punished for killing his children. So, when he realises that no such thing will happen, he decides to do it himself. He grabs a gun from a cop and shoots himself in the head. Only, he doesn’t realise the safety was on. When he tries to rectify that mistake, he is held down and taken back home. He doesn’t want to kill himself because he can’t live with the pain, he wants to kill himself because he can’t live with the guilt. He doesn’t find himself deserving of living after being responsible for burning his children alive.

There are some things that you never come back from. Being guilty of your children’s death is one of those things.It’s not that Lee can’t move on like Randi. If he tries then he surely can. But, he doesn’t want to. His cutting off from the world, this self-imposed loneliness is his punishment. If he allows himself to connect with people and find love again, he would open the door for happiness in his life. And after what he did to his children, he doesn’t feel deserving of happiness. How can he be happy without them? (This is quite a common emotion that people feel after they suffer a loss.) He admits to Patrick that he “can’t beat it.” And he doesn’t even look he is trying to. All of this is because he doesn’t want to be happy anymore.

If it hadn’t been his fault, perhaps his marriage would have survived. He and Randi would have found comfort in one another in the wake of the tragedy that struck them. Perhaps, through her support, he would have found the will to move on. But, it didn’t happen that way. He blames himself for it, and so does Randi. And this is why there was no hope for their marriage. No hope for him. He can’t even bring himself to talk to her or look her in the eye. He feels torn by seeing her with someone else and watching her build a family with a man other than himself, but in his heart, he feels that she deserves this family, and without him. He doesn’t hold any grudge against her for the terrible things she said to her, things for which she should burn in hell, because he knows that he deserves that hatred. That he is the one who should be burning in hell.

His self-imposed prison doesn’t allow him to feel any happiness. Years of conditioning has made him withdrawn and impassive. This is the pain that still haunts him, and it is greater than anything that will come in his life. So, when he hears about his brother’s death, he doesn’t show it as much as was “expected” of him. He doesn’t seem interested in people’s sympathies and seems more focused on the cost of the funeral arrangements, the boat’s situation and the fund for Patrick’s guardianship.

One could wonder why he didn’t (try to) kill himself? He tried it in the police station and with all this guilt still lingering on his soul, and him living alone in Boston, how has he not killed himself, yet? If you’re asking this question, too, then, seriously people, what a shitty question to ask. And to clear it further, his brother was looking after him. When Lee was leaving for Boston, Joe clearly tells him that he will call the cops, if he doesn’t hear from him by nine. He visits Lee’s new place and gets furniture for him even when Lee doesn’t want it. There are small things that Joe does for him, it is these gestures and his show of authority on Lee that makes Lee pull through every day. It is his brother who keeps him alive. Sometimes, this is just what a person needs to hang on to life. Someone who believes in them, unconditionally.

Maybe You Don’t Want That Image in Your Memory

Another expression of grief that we see in this film is Patrick’s loss. We see that he has a close relationship with his father, especially because his mother left him when he was still a boy. He grows up to be a confident and self-assured teenager. He is in the hockey team and the basketball team, he is the part of a band, seems quite popular in school and is juggling two girlfriends. He is, in most aspects, a normal teenager. He takes the death of his father with a poised demeanour and even when he is still a kid, he knows that he has to rise up the responsibility for himself. He could have let Lee handle everything and just agreed with everything that his uncle wanted to do. But, he doesn’t do it. Because, first of all, Lee has been distant from them for quite some time. And secondly, he hasn’t been raised that way. He questions every decision that Lee makes and wants a say in every matter. He doesn’t allow himself to break down in front of anyone, which is something that probably runs in his family. In fact, the couple of times that he does cry, it is in front of Lee.

Patrick holds his grounds about how he wants things. When Lee says that they will move to Boston, he refuses, laying down the logic of how he has a life in Manchester while Lee has nothing in Boston. When Lee wants to sell the boat, Patrick flatly refuses. He comes up with ideas to keep the boat running, even when Lee counters his thoughts. He lashes out at Lee for not allowing him to talk to his mother. He knows about his mother’s past problems, but he wants to give her a chance. He wants himself to have a chance with her. Once he meets her for lunch and then receives a mail from her husband, he realises that there is no hope for them. But, at least, he explored the possibility.

It seems like Patrick is handling everything pretty well. Maybe it was because he knew that his father had a disease that would eventually kill him, that Patrick had prepared himself for this. However, no amount of preparation can train you to handle the things when they actually happen. Also, Lee is the one who is guiding him through everything, so nothing is sugar-coated for him. Everything is told to him as it is, unfiltered and in precise reality. When he asks Lee about what his father looks like, Lee says, “he looks like he is dead”. One could say that Lee is handling this situation insensitively. But, considering everything that Lee has been through, he knows that no amount of sensitivity can change Patrick’s situation. He is being straightforward with Patrick because he wants to prepare him for life and turns out, Patrick wants that too.

Patrick’s composure throughout the film allows for a few light moments of humour in the film. When he hears about his father being frozen until the ground thaws to bury him, he expresses his discomfort with it. Lee too agrees that he doesn’t like it, but they can’t fight the weather and bringing heavy machinery in the grounds is not allowed. As they walk about, discussing it, Lee forgets where he parked the car. When they finally get in the car, it is so cold in there that Patrick starts showering his sarcastic comments on Lee. One of which is “Why don’t we keep my dad in here for the next three months. It’ll save us a fortune.” This would seem a callous thing if anyone else said it about his father, but coming from Patrick, it feels quite funny. Especially, considering how Lee had been going on and on about arrangements and costs and money and everything else.

His love life and management of two girlfriends simultaneously provides a reprieve in an otherwise gloomy environment. He doesn’t hold back his humour and sarcasm with Lee, in fact, it is more pronounced in their conversations. The miscommunication between them also provides for some light moments, like the time when they are outside the hospital and Patrick says “let’s go”. To which Lee thinks that he doesn’t want to go inside and drives away while Patrick opens the door to step out. There are light moments spread throughout the film to balance the scales between misery and the absurdity of their situations. Another thing that added authenticity to it was the way the dialogues were playing out. There were a couple times when the conversations overlapped. When two or three characters talked simultaneously and made it difficult to understand what any of them was saying. Don’t tell me people around you don’t do that. Don’t tell me that everyone you know, including you, is civil enough let others finish before they start talking!

Anyway, to the outsiders, it would look like Patrick is doing pretty well. That he is acting strongly in the face of atrocity, that he is not allowing the grief to influence him. Or at least, that’s what it looks like. But grief is a stronger force than it. It lingers in the shadows, and like fate, strikes when we least expect it. The perfect example for this is when Patrick has a panic attack after he sees the frozen food in the fridge. Just a few minutes ago, he was making jokes on it, and now, the sight of frozen chicken gave him a panic attack, portrayed in a nerve-wracking performance by Lucas Hedges.

Patrick couldn’t deal with the thought of his father being in a freezer for so long and he breaks down at the most inopportune of times. And this is how it is in real life too. People, though not all, deal with the immediate grief in a very tactical way. They take care of the funerals and the arrangements and policies they need to release and the papers they need to sign. They take care of everything because no one else will do it for them. And perhaps, it is this indulgence in activities that get them through the emotional upheaval. However, when everything is done with and everyone has expressed their condolences and left when people finally end up alone again, it is then that the reality dawns on them. It could be listening to a song, or watching a movie, mowing the lawn or reading a book or, as in Patrick’s case, exposure to frozen food, that triggers a certain thought and the loss weighs heavy on them. It is this realism that set the tone of ‘Manchester By the Sea’.

My Heart Was Broken and It Will Stay Broken

While Lee and Patrick were the centres of the drama unfolding in front of us, there was another character that represented one of the manifestations of grief. When I saw Michelle Williams on the posters and her name everywhere as one of the main cast members of the film, I thought that she would have more than fifteen minutes of combined screen-time in the whole film. I was a bit disappointed, to be honest, considering the fine actress that she is and wondering if the director could have used her talents better by extending her role in the film.

However, Williams didn’t seem affected by it and for all the time that she got on the screen, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Even when she wasn’t saying anything, her face and her eyes expressed all the lament and sadness within Randi. The scene where she finally gets to talk to Lee was the highlight of the whole film. That scene stole the show for me. The intensity of that scene and the profundity with which it was portrayed by Williams and Affleck cannot be put into words. There was so much heat there, so many emotions all at once. There was grieving, there was regret, there was apologizing and forgiveness. In one scene, the director showed us the two way that people turn out to be after they have gone through something truly harrowing. Randi represented the ones who take time but succeed in crossing over to the other side of the anguish. She represented the fluidity that time allows and the understanding it creates for the heartaches of other people. She showed that there are some things that you have to live with and some things that you have to let go of. She decided to live with the fact that her children were gone and that there is nothing that can be done about it.

Randi found strength, in time, and happiness again. She acknowledged the fact that a part of her was broken beyond repair and that she would have to live with that. In time, she also found the strength to not only forgive Lee but also to ask forgiveness from him about the things she said to her. Clearly, her attitude would’ve made life even more miserable for Lee, and while she wasn’t in her senses to understand it at the time, she did realise it later on. It must have been a long, and high, road for her from flinching at Lee’s touch to facing him and apologizing. She showed true concern for Lee and offered to help him by mending the bridge between them. Maybe, she wanted closure for herself, too. Lee was an unresolved thing from her past and in the process of moving on, she needed to be able to get past her despise for him. What she didn’t realise was that Lee hadn’t gotten past despising himself.

The Echoes and Murmurs

The storytelling in ‘Manchester By the Sea’ was compelling and engaging. Whenever the director wanted to emphasize on a certain scene or dialogue, he would add another layer to it. This called for a lot of things echoing throughout the film. For example, the scene where Patrick had the panic attack was followed by, or rather, was entwined with the scene of Lee moving to Boston. When Patrick tells Lee that he is fine and that Lee should leave him alone, Lee flatly refuses and sits by his bedside. He knows that even though Patrick feels like he should be left alone, it is not what he needs at the moment. In the scene parallel to it, we see Joe doing the same for Lee. Both these scenes emphasize the presence of a dominating figure in everyone’s life, especially in troubled times. Someone who knows exactly what is to be done even when the (grieving) person doesn’t know it.

Similarly, when Lee and Randi talk on the street and Randi says that his heart is broken, it echoes a minute or two later. Lee gets in a bar fight and when George takes him home and his wife fixes him up, she asks whether they should take him to a hospital. To this, George replies “I don’t think so. Nothing’s broken.”

Right in the first scene, we see Lee playing a game with young Patrick where he asks him who the best man would be to help him survive if he ever got stranded on an island. He wants Patrick to pick him, but the boy picks his father. Later, when Patrick is actually stranded, Lee doesn’t want to be picked for him. In the past, they appear close and friendly, but, in the present, they have trouble communicating with each other. There were small details like this that magnified the impact of certain points in the film.

The Ending

One of the most common complaints that I heard about ‘Manchester By the Sea’ was that there was no character growth in it. Lee was exactly as he had been at the beginning of the film, sad and alone. He didn’t forgive himself, he didn’t make peace with Randi, he didn’t try to connect with anyone, he didn’t stay in the town. Everything stayed the same for him. To those people, I ask to look closely. Yes, there was no grand gesture that changed him, neither was there a magnificent character growth. But, honestly, who changes so fast? If you know people who show sudden character changes, then you need to re-evaluate the kind of people around you.

As I said before, there are some things that you just can’t go back from. Randi might think that Lee just has a broken heart and that’s why she thinks it can be fixed. But, for Lee, there is nothing there, so what is there to fix, then? He knows himself, he knows his reality, and he doesn’t delude himself with any fake promises of life getting better for him. And this is exactly what he means when he tells Patrick that he can’t beat it.

There is, however, a twinkle of improvement that we see in him before the credits start to roll. There are small things, a gesture that he makes, a small pause in the conversation, a smile that doesn’t extend for more than a second, a simple act of letting the ball go, that tells about the changes in him.

In the beginning, he lives in a basement. When he learns about him being the guardian for Patrick, he doesn’t accept it. He wants to sell the boat and refuses to talk to a woman just so Patrick can have time alone with her daughter. All of these things change by the end. He comes up with a way to keep the boat running because that’s what Patrick wants. He wanders the streets so that Patrick and his girlfriend can have some alone time without her mother hovering around. He still doesn’t accept the responsibility of being a guardian, but he opens up more to him. He decides to buy an apartment with a spare room so Patrick can come to visit sometime, which implies that he is finally opening up to someone.

We don’t know how he will eventually turn out to be. If he will ever truly find his way back to being the way he was before if he’ll marry and have a family again. There is no flash-forward to ten years or so, telling how his story shapes up. But, we do see him taking small steps. The last scene is him and Patrick fishing on the boat. For a man who wanted to be left alone all the time, this is quite a remarkable improvement. There might not be a final decision on Lee’s fate, but there is hope for him. And sometimes, that’s all that one needs.

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