Manchester By The Sea: Discussion

If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review of the film, please see Matt’s excellent offering. I don’t want to ruin the movie for anyone, but if you’ve seen the film, then you understand the need to discuss it. It’s deeply affecting and disturbing and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

When Lee’s brother dies, the reclusive janitor reluctantly returns to his hometown to help out with the arrangements. He’s kept there longer than expected when he’s revealed to be his nephew’s new guardian.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a spook more than a man, a ghost still barely among the living, haunted by his past, carrying a huge burden of guilt, grief, and regret that we can almost physically see sitting atop his slumped shoulders. His performance is really restrained, as befits an emotionally blunted character. He manages to be subtle and to find lots of power in quiet moments. His performance will almost certainly be rewarded with an Oscar nomination, if not a win. What do you think his chances are? Did you see anyone out-act him this year? And what part do you think the allegations of sexual harassment against him will play in whether or not he wins?

Lee has a new life in a new town, though it’s pretty clearly only a half-life at best, given his physical and emotional isolation. During his questioning by the police, it’s clear that Lee feels he should be punished, and directly after he tries to take his own life. While clearly still trying to punish himself, do you think Lee is still suicidal?  When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat this thing” – is he talking about depression, guilt, grief? His reputation? Or something else?

I thought the movie started off pretty slow, but looking back on it with context, I wonder if the lethargy was deliberately representative of Lee’s depression. The movie never says the D-word, but certainly exhibits all the Hallmarks: violent outbursts, hopelessness, emptiness, the inability to enjoy life or take pleasure from thinks you used to enjoy, pushing people away.

The idea for the story didn’t originate with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan: in fact, it was Matt Damon and John Krasinski who came to him with the idea and asked him to develop the script. Damon would star and direct. But conflicts with The Martian prohibited him from doing so, and they turned control of the movie over to Lonergan. Do you think Lonergan stands a chance for best screenplay, or for that matter, best director?

The script is often praised for its “masculinity” which rubs me the wrong way. I don’t think Lee’s refusal to deal with anything should be lauded in any way, and his continued self-torture isn’t exactly gender specific. But the story is told in a refreshingly sparse sort of way, where the lead character speaks only under duress, and as a little as possible. And so much is implied rather than spoken outright: the unspeakable things his ex wife said to him, the town’s rejection of him, his own struggle with addiction, his attachment to pain,  his father’s death, the legal proceedings\media scrutiny that must have surrounded his case. Was there anything you felt the film missed? Any glaring holes you needed to see filled?

Some people felt the score was sufficiently bad to pull them out of some of the movie’s most impactful scenes (the house fire, in particular). Did you notice the score being good, bad, or ugly? Were there any stand-out supporting performances for you? Did you think the nephew, Patrick, was a realistic character? He really showcases the dark humour of the film, but sometimes I thought it odd how adult he seemed for a 15 year old.

We see Patrick trying to reconnect with his mother, who seems to have sobered up and carved out some sort of life with her new conservative Christian husband. But she’s not stable. She can’t handle things not going well. What purpose do you think this subplot served? Was it jarring or distracting for you to have Matthew Broderick in the role of her husband? Did you feel sympathy for the mother?

In the scene where Patrick’s girlfriend’s Mom comes out to Lee’s car to invite him for dinner and he says no, she responds that if he changes his mind in the next 10 minutes, “we’ll all be here”. The night of the fire, Lee remembered about the fireplace grate 10 minutes into his walk. He could have changed his mind, gone home, and his wife and kids would have all still been there. But he didn’t, and that scene is such a brutal reminder. What scene was the most emotionally engaging for you?

I think when Joe makes Lee the guardian, Joe is telling him: “You’re a good dad. I trust you with my kid. It’s not your fault.” And Lee can’t handle that. It’s too much like being absolved, and Lee cannot stand to be forgiven. In some ways, the guilt might be his only connection to his girls, and he’s unwilling to give it up. He doesn’t believe he deserves a second chance. Do you think there’s any hope for Lee?

Lee’s common refrain, uttered when things get too intense, is “Can we talk about this later?” only there is no later. We never see Lee deal openly with his emotions. He never lets us in. The audience is denied closure: how well has this film sat with you? Were you able to connect with a character who is so detached?

manchester-by-the-sea-boatI noticed that in flash back scenes with the 3 Chandler men aboard the boat, there was a big white pole stretched across the back of the craft, but in more recent scenes where just Lee and Patrick take to open waters, the pole is noticeably absent. Do you think this loss of a safety net is symbolic of anything else?

I felt like the film really addressed the ways in which we can judge parents. Clearly the town blames Lee for the accident that took the lives of his children. This is hammered home when he has a close call making dinner – he passes out and wakes up to an angry fire alarm. Some may see this as further evidence of his negligence, but who among us hasn’t made a similar mistake? Either way, it seems to be a catalyst for him giving up guardianship. Maybe it’s that his own self-doubt will never abate. One mistake proved fatal to his young family, and it’s clear that society has judged him harshly for it, perhaps because it makes us feel more insulated from our own mistakes. What really slapped me in the face though was when Lee is trying to make awkward conversation with Patrick’s girlfriend’s mother. I think she knows what is most likely going on in her daughter’s bedroom and she says something like “At least we know where they are.” Lee, however, knows damn well that kids are not necessarily safer in their own homes. No wonder he couldn’t get the conversation back on track. Even the most banal things paralyze him with fear. Remember how he overreacts when his nephew tries to exit the truck at the hospital when Lee thought he was meant to drive off? He admits that he just “gets scared” and his mind immediately goes to the worst possible scenario. In part, parenting often means confronting those fears. We try to keep our children safe but have to come to terms with the fact that we won’t always be there. Lee could have changed his mind just 10 minutes into his walk; 30 minutes later, his kids were dead. When he gets the phone call about his brother, he rushes to the hospital only to discover that Joe died an hour ago. He didn’t make it back on time. He wasn’t there. He couldn’t save him. There are so many near misses. But his reaction here is so real and raw. Do you think this sets the tone for the film? Does it foreshadow some of the later revelations?

One thing that I found very profound and very interesting is that the movie levels diseases. Three main characters suffer from disease: Kyle Chandler’s character from congenital heart disease, Casey Affleck’s from depression, and Gretchen Mol’s from addiction. None of them can “beat it.” But just as in real life, sympathy is usually only given to physical illness, whereas mental illness is stigmatized, and certainly here Joe is practically remembered as a saint whereas the other two are vilified.

We’re used to happy endings, or at least hopeful ones, but this one does little to console us. The ending is a bit abrupt, and just as bleak as the rest of the movie. Lee has sentenced himself to returning to the prison cell he’s built for himself. The only difference is that now he’s maybe possibly open to visitation. But could it have ended any other way?


In addition to discussing these points in the comments, feel free to ask your own questions, and to link to your own reviews.



23 thoughts on “Manchester By The Sea: Discussion

  1. Sean

    There’s so much here!

    I think the allegations against Affleck will play a part. I think he’ll still get nominated though. He’s the anchor for this movie so it’s impossible that he will be ignored altogether.

    I think Lee wants to die but he’s decided to punish himself in other ways. Maybe he sees death as too easy a way out of his misery. There’s no hope for him. Not even in opening up to Patrick at the end by offering a place to stay.

    The most affecting scene is when Lee runs into his ex wife and she apologizes but it doesn’t change anything. That shows there is nothing that will.

    I did not connect with Lee at all. Not at all.

    I thought Patrick was a bit of a contrivance but not unbearably so, and his character needed to be that way for the story’s sake. He has to have his own life in order for it to be problematic to move, yet young enough to require a guardian. And that’s what we got.

    Matthew Broderick was distracting but I kind of liked seeing him in the role. The subplot seemed to cross mom off the potential guardian list but in a bit different way than expected. Which was nice in that it spoke to the disease without resorting to a cliche we’ve seen a lot.

    It could have ended another way but I liked this ending better. I thought Patrick was going to have the same illness as his dad. But that would really have been miserable.


    1. Jay Post author

      We see Lee pick fights in bars a lot, always a group of men, and I wonder if he’s trying to get himself killed. Suicide by someone else’s hand.

      I think it was horrible when she says “I love you” – obviously hard for her to do, but true. And he can’t handle that at all. He looks so scared and cornered by anyone trying to talk about feelings.

      Another scene that really got to me: when they bury Joe in the spring, Randi’s there with her baby and husband. The baby cries. And cries. Such a terrible, piercing reminder at an already difficult time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sean

        The fights may have been suicide attempts. I chalked it up to rage like him punching the glass but your thought fits. It was horrible when she tells him she loves him. He cannot handle it at all. That was a heartbreaking scene from start to finish. And the funeral as well, as a further reminder of how broken the whole situation is.


  2. In My Cluttered Attic

    Haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my list. Holidays and Trump have made going to see films that offer escape the order of the day for us… THE YEAR! Just heard Carrie Fisher has passed. Like Mark Hamill said, “Can 2016 get any worse?”


  3. Tom

    Fucking amazing movie. I’m glad we’re discussing this in this way, there’s SO much unpacking to do! First of all, I’d let to get this out of the way — No, the movie could not have ended any other way (or at least I wouldn’t have accepted it any other way, the heartbreak of Lee’s final revelation is so, so genuine).

    1) Casey Affleck, for me, is almost a lock for Best Actor. This I say in spite of the allegations that have surfaced recently. It’s kind of gross, really, that perhaps Batfleck’s brother isn’t really stretching to make this role feel as real as it does. I get the sense that this guy has some really dark history, that he has been keeping some wolves at bay for some time with acting. Like, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to meet him in person and discover he’s kind of a sleaze. But I have tried and will continue to try to separate the artist from their personal lives. I really try to stay out of the business of tabloids and gossip. A film is a film, an actor is a person.

    2) I do think Lee still wants to end it all. The pain is simply too much. This scene was so chronic to watch, I pretty much have convinced myself that not even the scenes from Nocturnal Animals that are supposed to be bad are as bad as watching this guy go through this shit.

    3) My vote is in for Best Original Screenplay here. Lonergan as director? Possibly. He’s gotta contend with Jeff Nichols and Damien Chazelle — and very likely Denzel as well. That’s a tall order.

    4) I actually felt Manchester By the Sea did a really nice job covering life’s bullshit top-to-bottom. It scrutinizes some really intimate aspects that I felt made a slow-burning narrative more interesting to watch. The added doses of humor, provided seemingly during every moment where Patrick is trying to get his rocks off, helped provide levity to a film that really could have been even more depressing. And the script pays attention to so many characters beyond Lee.

    5) I was certainly not as much a fan of Patrick’s mom, but I think that’s by design. She was irritating, but perhaps in a sad kind of way. I think the insertion of Matthew Broderick worked, although if anything it was probably the film’s most egregious example of shoehorning in a big name to fill a thankless role. Which is pretty much what Warren Beaty did like a pro in Rules Don’t Apply.

    6) The most emotionally engaging scene for me? Shit. It’s a toss-up between Lee and Randi re-acquainting with each other on the streets — for me that’s gotta be one of the best scenes of the year — and the house fire scene. I almost cried in that part. That was so fucking awful.

    7) This is the part that really compelled me about this film. The film doesn’t really give you much hope for Lee. Because that’s one of the brutal realities of life. No one really cares when you fall by the wayside. People are too self-absorbed to really worry about someone else. That Lee feels the way he does — so hopeless and withdrawn — is a function of a world that has given up on him. Lee’s not the asshole. The world is.

    8) I have to say this film has actually grown on me more since watching it. It’s going to be up there in the top 3 for me this year. I was surprised that I did manage to make an emotional connection to someone so cold. Because I saw a lot of myself in a person like him.

    9) I hadn’t really noticed that the safety bar had been removed, but that’s a keen observation! I actually do think that’s deliberately symbolic.

    10) That early scene where Lee discovers his brother has passed does set the tone. It shows you the emotional stuntedness of Lee, at this point an already broken man. How do you break something that’s already broken? I guess break it into smaller pieces. Lee is almost numb in this moment and at first you’re kind of thinking “Wow, what a dick” but as more revelations come to the fore, you kind of want to retract those thoughts and feelings.


    1. Jay Post author

      I haven’t seen anyone else I like better for best actor. It’s not a showy role, not the usual Oscar bait, but I think there was so much power in his quietness, that really impressed me.

      And I agree that he wants it to be done. He may have been staying alive for his brother’s sake, but he’s given himself a life sentence and he’s carrying it out in pretty dire circumstances. He wants to be punished.

      Denzel did not impress me as a director. Chazelle did big time. And to me Chazelle is the stiff competition for original screenplay as well.

      You’re right about the mundane bullshit. The funeral home, the kid browsing the coffin types and griping about the cemetery…it’s all pretty pathetic until you realize that maybe Lee’s already done that for his girls.

      I really hated to see Lee left to his own devices. He certainly gave no indication of getting real help. No one’s suggesting it either, but he’s obviously pushed everyone away, and if someone tries to talk, he runs. He did a lot of running. Apart from the pictures he keeps by his bed, it’s like he’s trying to forget he ever had kids.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Tom

        Yeah, it seems that way. This was in many ways one of the most upsetting films I’ve seen all year. And it’s not really visceral, either. Save for that one scene. The house fire bit was hard to watch, even though you’re not really shown anything! Ugh, this was so good.


  4. Brittani

    I’m in the minority, but I didn’t like this film. Nothing happened, I kept expecting Lee to go through a dramatic change, and that never came.

    I think Affleck will get a nomination, the media seems to be ignoring his sexual assault claims.

    “I can’t beat this thing” I thought was about depression.

    The most emotional moment for me was Randi and Lee meeting later on. Michelle Williams was amazing in that scene. This film for me was very cold and Randi was the only character I felt any emotion for.


    1. Jay Post author

      I totally understand how it’s frustrating. I guess I just think it’s brave and real to not have an arc for Lee. Maybe it stems from being a therapist myself: so many caught in real trauma, PTSD, and depression can’t escape it, and some don’t want to.

      That scene was definitely a doozie. About 75% of couples split after the death of a child, usually not because they’ve stopped loving each other, but because they remind each other too much of what they’ve lost. But between these two, she’s been either fiery mad, or deeply sad, and since he’s completely shut off from everything, it must have been terrible between them.


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  7. Christopher

    One thing that sticks with me is I kept expecting a revelation that Lee was in fact Patrick’s real father. This is not the film’s fault; strictly speaking it’s my own fault or possibly Hollywood’s.
    In fact I think one of the best things about this film is it didn’t go for such intense drama. It could have and still been a very good film but it would be a very different film. I’m glad Lonergan didn’t go that route–assuming he even considered it.
    The scene that really highlights the subtlety of the overall film is when Lee finds Joe’s collection of guns. I could hear people around me in the theater gasping at that moment, but instead of it becoming another suicide attempt it becomes an entirely different kind of turning point for Lee.
    But again there are no easy resolutions. Selling Joe’s guns and fixing the boat’s motor gives Lee and Patrick a respite but, under the surface, there are bigger problems that no amount of money can fix.


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