The Suffocating Sadness of Manchester by the Sea

Joel Mayward

Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of the articles are available as a pdf package here.

There’s a brief but important moment in Manchester by the Sea where a paramedic attempts to load a patient on a gurney into the back of an ambulance. The mechanism that allows the wheels to fold up fails and the stretcher locks, creating an awkward, jarring experience for paramedics and patient alike. It’s a small gesture indicating a larger theme: no matter the effort or exertion, our world is broken. Left to our own devices, it appears to be stuck that way.

Manchester by the Sea, which has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, is a very, very sad film. Its central character, Lee—portrayed with remarkable intensity by Casey Affleck—carries his grief around like an invisible backpack full of bricks. (We don’t learn the source of this grief until midway through the movie.) Affleck’s performance centers not on Lee’s eyes or words, but on his hands and posture. Whether those hands are straining on a fishing line, shoveling snow from a sidewalk, turning a wrench on a pipe, punching a person in the face, shaking from the shock of horrific news, or stuffed into jean pockets, Lee’s palms and fingers are his primary form of emotional communication, a sort of “tell” unveiling his deep shame and self-loathing.

Affleck’s performance centers not on Lee’s eyes or words, but on his hands and posture.

Upon learning of the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) at the start of the film, Lee is compelled to return to his former home of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., to take care of the arrangements. Forced to be the guardian of his now-orphaned nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee walks a fine line between being a responsible adult and an unstable presence in Patrick’s life. Haunted by his own past tragedy, Lee remains in a state of perpetual emotional disrepair. Patrick serves as Lee’s foil, a sarcastic and light-hearted teenager who seems to handle the death of Joe with a surprising maturity, while still navigating his own grief. There is a good deal of humor in their interactions; a pleasant relief in what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly doleful film.

Have you ever heard how to trap a monkey? (Bear with me here.) You trap a monkey with a banana in a jar with a hole large enough for the monkey’s hand to fit inside, but not large enough for the monkey’s closed fist to emerge. The monkey clutches the banana, unable—or unwilling—to free itself due to the power of desire. Lee has locked his grip with grief, and this embrace prevents him from entering into healthy relationships. He becomes isolated in a purgatorial state, distant and aloof, disconnected from those around him due to his inability to open himself up to the healing presence of others. While Patrick seems able to ultimately find a sense of freedom from the grip of grief, Lee admits in defeat, “I can’t beat it.” So he lets grief beat him, over and over like a boxing match in which the bell never rings.

The brokenness we see daily in our world should affect us deeply, but often we don’t allow ourselves to feel it. Whether from others or ourselves, however, tears cannot be ignored. In Listening to Your Life, Frederick Buechner writes, “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay closest attention... More often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.” The tear-eliciting sadness of Manchester by the Sea lies not only in Lee’s trauma, but also in his inability (or unwillingness) to achieve healing. A broken world resigned to the absence of redemption? That’s about as sad as it gets.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure