If you haven't watched the movie, I would recommend not reading on because there are major spoilers.
"I don't like the fact that, nowadays, it feels like it's not permissible to leave something unresolved, I mean, what the fuck is closure? Some people never get that. Some people live with their trauma for years."
This was director Kenneth Lonergan talking about his crux of his most successful movie, "Manchester by the Sea," It is the most realistic depiction of grief I've seen in film, and it's not an easy watch by any stretch. I've cried every time I've seen the movie, and the grief shown by the main character, Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck), is irreparable. It is revealed in a series of flashbacks throughout the film, but the summary of them is this: he lost his two children in a house fire one night, and his marriage proceeded to fall apart.
The movie begins with a scene of the death of Lee's brother, Joe. Lee goes to a lawyer with his now-orphaned nephew, Patrick. He has to move back to Manchester, where all the brutal loss and tragedy catch up to him and is now Patrick's legal guardian. There is a scene near the end of the movie that I want this article to focus on: it is a brilliantly played scene in which Lee runs into his ex-wife, Randi, in Manchester. I've linked the scene, and implore you to watch it.
Everywhere he goes, Lee is greeted by whispers and glares from people he used to be friendly with. Downtrodden is a light word used to describe his disposition - perhaps devastated would be better. He awakes one day, having forgotten to turn the stove off, in panicked with deja vu and flashbacks to the night that changed his life. He walks around almost as a zombie.His past is such a level of devastation that he can't move on, something that Lonergan shows best in the following words:
"I don't like this lie that everybody gets over things that easily. Some people can't get over something major that's happened to them at all; why can't they have a movie too? Why can't there be one film about somebody who doesn't magically bounce back?"
The pivotal scene between Randi and Lee demonstrates this best - in both its pain and beauty. Randi says to Lee that "my heart was broken - cause it's always gonna be broken, and I know yours is broken, too." Although they both share the unbearable pain and suffering of having lost their children, Randi differentiates that Lee has it worse: "I don't have to carry it," as it was not she that left the screen door open on the fireplace on that ill-fated night.
"I love you! Maybe I shouldn't say that," Randi continues. With full control of the conversation, Randi makes many of her amends to Lee in the scene, but Lee's words are quiet and stuttered. "Please" and "thank you" are the phrases that dominate her dialogue as he desperately tries to cut her off and stop the painful talk.
Eventually, Lee tells Randi that "there's nothing there."
"You can't just die!" Randi says to him.
Even in his nothingness, Lee has found something special throughout the movie. Even when he is suffering, tormented, and feels every waking moment that he is in hell for his traumatic past, his grief overlaps with Patrick's, too. Both have lost their loved ones, and for both, their sarcastic humor are coping mechanisms for dealing. The flashbacks show clearly that Lee cares for Patrick, as he did his own children, but that the despair and haunting memories of the town of Manchester are too much for him to handle.
I found "Manchester by the Sea" to be, yes, a story of grief, but further than that, I find it to be a story of how people relate in the face of grief, and how they act among each other. The conversation between Lee and Randi, or the dynamic between Patrick and Lee are much greater and thought-provoking stories - none of the characters have closure from what happened. It seems like there may be a point they never will, but they've found something more in their brokenness: a love for one another in the face of suffering.
Terrible things happened in Lee's life, in particular, as Casey Affleck takes away the show in this movie. We empathize with him from the beginning to end. At various points of the movie, it's pretty clear that he wants to die. But he doesn't just die, and in doing so, his life went on - his story didn't end, and he was able to show and give the gifts of empathy and compassion to Patrick. No, very few things are fixed at the very end of "Manchester by the Sea," but in its state of grief. No one has truly moved on. But in these relationships, there sure was a whole lot of hope.
"It's funny, I started out trying to make a film about grief, about telling a story involving sorrow and regret. And as it went on, it occurred to me that it's a lot more about love than I'd realized," Lonergan finished.