A winter movie if ever there was one, Manchester by the Sea is as cold as its snowy setting. Certain other likely Oscar contenders are easy to love, but the story of a man struggling to cope both with past personal tragedy and the death of his brother is a solemn affair.
By alternating between past and present it feels as if we are invited to peer through a window into Lee Chandler’s life. Much as townsfolk talk in hushed tones about him, we are given the chance to be as voyeuristic as they wish they could be. We are a fly on the wall as he struggles in public and in private over a hell of a hand that life has dealt him. The film avoids becoming overwhelmingly depressing by reassuring you that this is all happening to someone else, someone we are watching and privy to, but not you.
The dynamic between Chandler and his nephew Patrick is the film’s core even while our protagonist is off drinking alone at bars or rearranging his furniture. While the abysmal Collateral Beauty tried to personify emotions and concepts, grief is a central character in Manchester by the Sea looming over everyone in different ways. Patrick, still a young life facing his first real tragedy, is seemingly not as phased as Chandler who has taken one too many beatings. The clues are there that Patrick is having a harder time than he lets others believe, contrasting with Chandler’s constant and obvious melancholy.
The film has an air of the unfinished. There is no full stop, and certain conversations feel like cliffhangers. Michelle Williams is robbed as Chandler’s ex as she steals every scene she is in, but is cruelly given far too few opportunities to do so. We become invested in the healing of a family by only being given so much, and by having closure portrayed as unattainable, the film is placing grief right in front of us. There are a number of genuinely funny tragicomic moments along with hilarious banter between Chandler and his nephew, but ultimately the solemnity that hangs over the film and the protagonist is overpowering and is what remains as the credits roll.