I left the theater, letting the powers of this absorbing film continue to absorb in a kind of post-film cool down, the kind of cool down you need after giving your brain a workout. I felt peaceful and inspired, contrary to the reactions of friends who had seen Manchester by the Sea, or who had tried to see it, but couldn’t get very far due to the sadness factor.
My good friend told me, “It’s slow and depressing, but you liked Brooklyn so you might like this one too.” That turned out to be an accurate prognosis. Both Manchester by the Sea and Brooklyn involve love and heartbreak, complex relationships with both people and places, and conflict between the past and the present. Also, both films examine working-class characters with accents that add depth to the characters’ authenticity.
I loved Manchester by the Sea. Everything was so palpable. Casey Affleck plays Lee, a broken man whose flashbacks to his old life with his wife and children explain his frequent flights of self-harm. Lee’s general approach to life is to act as if he’s doing a thankless chore, perhaps expelling the vile contents of a clogged sink, which is also what he does for a living.
I had seen another film by the same director, Kenneth Lonergan. His film Margaret also commanded my respect because it’s about complex characters. I found that dignity and honesty so refreshing, even purifying because I was able to see his films’ characters at their most vulnerable and not judge them for mistakes they had made. So often we hear a little bit about people who have screwed up and snap to harsh judgments. We are so quick to condemn each other. How do they sleep at night? How do they look at themselves in the mirror without throwing up? What a terrible mother! (A passerby in Manchester by the Sea even says, “Nice parenting,” to Lee when he sees him arguing with his nephew.) The film is full of small, self-righteous characters who think they understand more than they do.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” I believe that’s good advice for writers and non-writers. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but films like Manchester by the Sea serve to remind us that we are all complicated people with our own set of demons.