Manchester by the Sea, a review

I used to believe that I was emotionally resilient. After experiencing Kenneth Lonergan’s film, “Manchester By The Sea,” I’m not so sure.

We first meet the central character, Lee Chandler, as a brooding, angry maintenance worker who manages to piss off or frustrate some of the tenants in one of the apartment buildings where he works. In the next scene, he starts a barroom brawl.

We don’t find out anything else about Lee’s life until one flashback reveals his alcoholic carelessness when he runs out of beer one night and walks to the store, forgetting to put the protective screen in front of the fire in the home fireplace. As he returns from the store, he hears fire sirens and runs up to see his home in flames and his distraught wife being gurneyed into the ambulance. His two children are lifted out of the rubble in black plastic bags.

From that traumatic moment, his psyche is frozen in emotional withdrawal and rage, two reactions he can little afford when he receives a phone call informing him that his brother has just died from a massive heart attack. 

In a moment he is totally unprepared for, a lawyer informs him that his brother appointed him legal guardian of his teen-age nephew.

The rest of the film chronicles the uneven relationship with the nephew in moments of dark humor, raw honesty and the nephew’s casual and often comic sexual experiences.

One of the more poignant scenes happens when the nephew has a short-lived emotional break down when frozen meat keeps falling out of the freezer, reminding him that his father’s body has to stay in a morgue freezer because the cemetery ground in the winter is too hard to dig through for his father’s grave.

The nephew, the film is clear in telling us, is far more emotionally vulnerable and open than his uncle, who finally admits he can’t “beat” the darkness of his own personal trauma in being responsible for his children’s deaths. In addition to trying to adapt to his role as guardian, he makes at least one attempt at emotional expansiveness when he sells his brother’s guns to pay for a new motor for the nephew’s inherited boat.

Many of the town’s residents still hold him responsible for his family tragedy. His ex-wife is one of the exceptions when she makes a vain attempt to have him admit he still loves her, after she makes her own admission. In a typical dark Lonergan moment, she reveals her feelings even though she’s remarried and is out strolling her newly born infant when the chance meeting with Lee happens.

Lee is presented with a series of vulnerability and compassion moments from other people, cumulative examples that life still has worth—from the medical staff in the hospital where his brother dies to his nephew’s open moments of vulnerability to his own memories of his brother’s deep affection for him and his ex-wife’s fragile and risky admission that she still loves him.

In the final scene, Lee and his nephew are out on the family boat fishing. He has forfeited his guardianship and plans to return to Boston. He has chosen, in the end, not to move out of his soul’s bleak darkness. As the Romans would say, “Noli Me Tangere” (a loose translation—“let nothing touch me”)

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