The Brutal Truths of Manchester by the Sea

Most of us like to think the resilience of human beings is unlimited, and, indeed, it’s not hard to conjure examples of strength that lend credence to this belief. From Auschwitz to the firestorms of Tokyo to the Hanoi Hilton to the killing fields of Cambodia, and from America’s Original Sin, survivors have emerged.

But can a loss be so deep a person cannot climb out of its hole? Can a heart be so broken as to never heal completely?

Turning these questions over in one’s mind is not a pleasant preoccupation and in leading viewers to do so, Manchester by the Sea is a brutal film. We watch Lee Chandler, portrayed by Casey Affleck, struggle with an almost unfathomable tragedy and the terrible burden of guilt it left in its wake. Lee courts danger and provokes violence against himself to try and rectify the absurdity that the world did not punish him for his role in what he’s endured. And after a valiant attempt at healing himself, Lee concludes “I can’t beat it.”

He can live, he can get by, he can make it through the day, but he will never be whole again. Any joy he experiences will be tempered by the depth of his pain. The road he travels does not lead to redemption, because he knows he’s broken in ways that mean he can never be fixed, not completely. He fights to see how far he can go, but in the end, he knows he will never make it all the way back.

Sometimes art is dark. Sometimes it forces us to confront truths from which we would rather turn away. But maybe there is value in plumbing the depths of a broken soul. Maybe we can learn something from Lee’s defeat at the hands of fate. Or maybe we watch Manchester by the Sea, watch Lee admit he “can’t beat it,” and just hope with everything we’ve got that he’s wrong.

3 comments

  1. The first time I watched the trailer for Manchester by the Sea, I was almost put off completely. No new ground here: death in family, orphan kid, aloof relative, put them together, they learn to love and live by the end.
    And truly, the themes of it have been done many times before.

    But the fact that Lee “can’t beat it” is truly what sets it apart from most of the films about grief I’ve seen. A happy ending is incredible; an ending in which the audience knows the character will probably be unhappy for the rest of his days, yet continues to play ball with his nephew up a hill, doesn’t feel as good but it lasts longer. It is because we recognize ourselves in Lee’s plight that we love happy endings in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

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