I am very late with this one, I know, but I had to find some courage to start it.
This is about a man who is so locked up in unprocessed grief that he finds it impossible to engage with society in any normal way. Lee works in Boston as a handyman, just maintaining living blocks and doing his job. Emotionally he is completely flat. He does not give a shit about anything, really. He is a walking zombie, maintaining a posture to just live and survive. It becomes clear that there lies a tragedy in his past, which he has found impossible to process. When his brother suddenly dies, he is forced to engage with the remnants of his family. Most importantly, his nephew who is left without a father. The responsibility falls on his shoulders to take him in, but that leads him back to the necessity of facing his own emotions.
What Manchester by the Sea does masterfully is that people like Lee who are emotionally locked up are often not aware of their own situation. They do not fully realize how jarring their behavior can be to others around them and they cannot bear to really be aware of their own situation. For that, they would have to face that grief that is too much to face right now. Casey Affleck gives us Lee as a character study where you can just see the man folded in on himself. During the first hour, we see him interacting with nurses, with his nephew, with other adults, and it is just painfully visible that there is something off about him. He does not have the emotional reactions that you would expect from normally functioning people. He can barely carry the responsibility of a job, let alone that of a surrogate father.
The first hour therefore may seem slow, but it is beautifully subtle showing of a person who is “off” and the effects this has on his surroundings. Affleck’s performance is perfectly on point; measured. There are many scenes that are very uncomfortable to watch because of Lee’s stoic behavior, and that builds a tension throughout the movie where you want that dam to break; you want Lee to let it go, to let open the floodgates. The tragedy that occurred was his own fault and it is his own shame that is the barrier inside him.
The strongest, most heartfelt scene is delivered by Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife. It is true that everything is Lee’s fault, but when even his ex-wife reached the point of forgiving him, then the only one still standing in Lee’s way towards redemption is Lee himself. And he not only stands in his own way, he also stands in his ex-wife’s way and in his nephew’s way.
There is a release of sorts, but it is similarly understated as the rest of the film. I find the understatement beautiful. It brings a realism to the film that is hard-hitting. In addition, the film is shot in winter in New England, which is both beautiful and stark and cold. It mirrors the emotional dimension of the story perfectly. Manchester by the Sea is both a hard and subtle film that understands emotions very well and is supported by superb acting by both Affleck and Williams.