Unlike love, grief is an emotion seldom used as dominant motif in a movie. There are some exceptions though, where grief has driven the narrative like in Three Colors: Blue and Sophie’s Choice. Manchester by the Sea is another addition to the grief canon. It’s an unpretentious movie about a man burdened by something that has reduced him to a barely alive status.
Casey Affleck plays a janitor who from the beginning of his appearance on screen looks like a man haunted by something in his past. He walks as a man carrying the whole world’s burden. He is afflicted by a death-wish, and does not intend to go back to a past life which he had left behind. One day this depressed loner receives a call that his beloved elder brother is dying. When he returns to the frozen town of his sad past, he learns that his brother is dead and has made him the guardian of his teenage son. A man who is walking dead, is given the responsibility to take care of a teen with two girlfriends, and a no-talent rock band. Casey Affleck turns in another low-key performance as Lee Chandler, the self-punishing recluse. His walk conveys that this man is carrying a weight which no ordinary man would like to bear. Everyone around him talks in whispers, of the sorrow he had to endure and the sad event he was responsible for. The movie takes its time to reveal what befell him and it is something far beyond what we had imagined. Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler, the sixteen-year-old nephew, who can’t grieve for the loss of his father, gives a prodigious performance. He is left a clueless orphan in the world by the death of his father and desertion of his unpredictable mother. The one person made responsible for him is his uncle, who is incapable of taking the responsibility, fighting his own demons. The movie is rich performance-wise. Michelle Williams delivers another top-notch performance as ex-wife of Lee Chandler. Her conversation with Casey Affleck, that veers from guilt to consolation to forgiveness to love, is the highlight of the movie.
The harsh arctic winter, that has frozen the place and its people, play an equally important role in the narrative. A beloved brother-and-father’s corpse lies in the freezer till the frozen land thaws enough for his burial. The winter and the snow are symbols of the grief and self-abnegation that envelope the Chandlers. Fire and snow play crucial roles in the story. A boat left by the departed father is a symbol of freedom from the sad past. The act of selling the guns to power the boat is an affirmation of life. It signifies that life force has won over the death instinct. The only flaw of the movie is that it is choppily edited at times. The story populated by full-bodied characters more than make up for its flaws. This is a slow-burner of a film with low-key performances.
A must watch.