The seagulls flying over the clear blue tidal waves besides Manchester-by-the-sea are reminiscent of the dreamy tranquil nature of this town. The mundane life of Lee, a struggling handyman, is introduced to us as we feel the cold snow piling up on the ground.
Kenneth Lonergan captivates us with his new style of an intimately written narrative. Lee’s life becomes a part of us as the crease lines on his forehead deepen and he is forced into a new tide after his brother passes away. As Lee (played by Casey Affleck) rushes to the hospital, he is unsure of what is to come ahead. Lost and dazed, he thanks the doctor for informing him on time as George is still broken by the news. The long medium shot shows the murmur going on between the doctor, the nurse, Lee and his friend George. This unique camera style adopted by Jody Lee Lipes is that of a discrete observation of the dilemma faced by the different lives we see in front of us. Sometimes these dense silences are filled by the soft chorale voices (Music by Lesley Barber) which brings hope like fire during a cold winter. There is a distance between the us and the characters of this story, metaphorically shown in these long medium shots. We do not need to hear the words spoken by any of them. Watching from a distance, we know there is a feeling of hurt and confusion in the air. Lee’s face is written over with many stories which are yet to unfurl as he goes down the elevator with the doctor to see his dead brother for one last time. Going down an elevator is like going to your own basement. A cellar of memories. As they go down, we are confronted with a scene of his brother Joe, waking up on the hospital bed. Bethany, the soft spoken and compassionate doctor tells him about his heart condition with her head held down in humility. Joe doesn’t have much time. The elevator stops. Lee is reluctant to see him in a body bag but he wants to face the truth in this frenzy of confusion. This entire scene is delicately woven to make us ride down our own memories of our loved ones. Like smelling a cupboard which has been unopened for a long time.
In one of the flashbacks, the quirky, young Patrick (Joe’s son) stares at his mother who is passed out, lying half naked on the bed as they enter home after a fishing trip. Joe tells him to go upstairs, but a prolonged stare from poor Patrick shows that he knows something is wrong with his mother. Now he is all grown up and as he stands next to Lee, his uncle, he bows down in pain after listening to the news, in the middle of his ice hockey game. These dense moments of emotion are always placed at a distance from us on the screen, intriguing us and urging us to delve into the depths. Coupled with this loss, Lee is never able to forgive himself from the one terrible night he despises in his life. The night that he accidentally burns down his house. He is drunk and he blames himself for the carelessness from that very moment. The twilight dissolves into the sky as the fire fighters douse the fire and Lee is standing with his paper bag of groceries, torn and not able to believe he could have caused this. His wife Randi shouts in the distance, shrieking in pain to call out to her daughters who are sadly left behind in the rescue. A slow-motion sequence of silence and the fire fighters carrying two wrapped up black covers to the ambulance is portrayed in the softest subtleties there is to cinema. The true essence of cinema is when the unsaid on the screen makes us speak out to the unsaid within ourselves.
Lee’s relationship with Patrick becomes intimate with new colours each day. He gets to know about Patrick’s girlfriends and stays ignorant of meeting new people as he feels he doesn’t deserve anything good anymore. Patrick breaks down one day as frozen meat falls from the freezer and he is disgusted that his father’s body must be frozen till he is buried as the undertaker is too busy with appointments of other funerals. Lee understands him and calms him down till he falls asleep. Lee becomes an elder brother to Patrick. He is reluctant of the responsibility he must take but he keeps Patrick close to his heart.
Lee is always rebellious of the fact that he is not able to completely stand on his own legs after the traumatic loss of his children. His brother helps him out with a new place and some new furniture. His wife leaves him. And now he is faced with a bigger dilemma of being a guardian to Patrick. His face is constantly filled with guilt and anxiety of how he will be able to provide for Patrick as well. Venting out these feelings in bar fights become a frequent errand for him. In one of the most iconic scenes of the film, he meets Randi (played by Michelle Williams), now his ex-wife, while walking down a road. He watches her pushing a cradle and sees her new baby. ‘Handsome’ he remarks. They are at a loss of words and Randi apologizes for walking out on him. She urges him to come out of the dark and stop being ‘dead’ to everyone. She sobs profusely and says she still loves him for what he his. It feels like one tree is trying to protect another withered tree from falling to the ground. She wants to help him, but it is too late. The tides have changed and the birds have migrated. Fragile as he is, Patrick is shocked to see the new avatar of his mother, during a lunch with her new overtly ‘christian’ husband. She is no longer an alcoholic but her mind is still the same, tense, and anxious. Meanwhile, Lee breaks down completely at George’s house as his wife comforts him. He requests them to look after Patrick and they agree to adopt him. These cuts are interlaced with silences and subtle music. The editing by Jennifer Lame is simple, yet brilliantly evocative of the mood of this narrative.
People are pushed into cruel circumstances and however cruel these circumstances can get, going back to your family, and taking care of your loved ones will push away the tides to a different shore, however ferocious they get. At times these tides come back to the same shore and that is when we understand who we are and how insignificant we want to become. Lee is introduced as a handyman, a man who repairs things at people’s houses. The irony is that he is unable to repair his own house, his own mind full of soft memories of his daughters, his wife, and his brother. He is unwilling to let go of Patrick as he is his only family. As the seagulls fly across the frosty seas of the fishing village, the boat floats by with Patrick and Lee trying to catch some fresh fish. The handyman is finally able to repair his own sense of belonging to the world.