THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"MANCHESTER BY THE SEA"
In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined what she called the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She devised this theory to apply to people suffering from terminal illness, although it's since become generally recognized as something loved ones experience when someone passes, too. There is a range of emotions one must traverse before feeling relatively stable again after a loss. Manchester by the Sea is about a man who goes through these five stages.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman whose brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) abruptly succumbs to a persistent medical issue. Lee is, by nature, an emotionally walled-up person (for reasons we find out later in the story). At first, he tries not to let the passing faze him. Then he gets angry when people try to extend their sympathies. Later, he's put in charge of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and tries to bargain his way out of it. Depression enters the picture when he encounters his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). Her very presence reminds him of the reason their marriage dissolved. As for acceptance, it doesn't come easily, nor does it come in a predictable manner.
Manchester by the Sea addresses its theme of grief by following Lee as he does all the things that need to be done when someone dies. He views the corpse, meets with the executor of the will, picks out a casket at the funeral home, and so on. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) pays attention to the little details in these events – the feelings of discomfort, of trying to summon the strength to take care of business when you're falling apart inside. He uses some dry humor to help offset the seriousness of the material, showing how the absurd little moments are often what help us get through. At times, you feel bad for laughing, but that's part of Lonergan's plan.
At the same time that it's about figuring out how to navigate loss, the movie is also a character study. Casey Affleck was a strong choice for the lead role. His borderline monotone voice and penchant for minimalism in his facial expressions allows him to fully convey the way Lee has built fortified walls around his heart. When a few cracks appear in those walls, the actor has the opportunity to show a complete release of emotion, the likes of which he's rarely had the chance to do before. Eventually we learn why Lee has bottled things up; it's a self-preservational act designed to keep him from facing something he can't cope with. Watching him slowly succumb to the very things he's spent years running from makes for engaging drama. Affleck gives his most assured performance to date.
So much of Manchester by the Sea rings true. That said, there may be a bit of a dividing line among viewers. As insightful as the film is, there are other pictures on death and grief – such as the upcoming A Monster Calls -- that hit me a lot harder. I didn't get the same gut punch this time. Other people may find themselves devastated by Lonergan's film. To a degree, it depends upon your own life experiences with loss and how they impacted you. And, in honesty, it probably depends on how much you identify with Lee. Those more in touch with their emotions might not respond as deeply as those who, like him, have a harder time showing them.
That's just a small observation. On the whole, Manchester by the Sea is a sensitive and occasionally stinging look at how death disrupts life. Affleck is first-rate, while Williams and Hedges offer sterling supporting work. Slice-of-life stories this well done are always something to be cherished.
( 1/2 out of four)
Manchester by the Sea is rated R for language throughout and some sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.
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