Manchester By The Sea Explained
Manchester By The Sea Explained - or how this movie made me reconsider what the meaning of grace really was. Or how to forgive myself for the stupidity and ignorance I've caused in my own past. IMDB
4.8Overall Score
Reader Rating: (7 Votes)

Ok. So maybe the Golden Globes convinced me to see this movie. And yeah, maybe I didn’t give Casey Affleck the credit he is apparently due. But really? Every time I see him I think he is awesome group dynamic addition. But not someone to carry a movie, especially an emotion-driven movie, on his own. Anyway… so I didn’t see this one coming. And man did this movie do a number on me. Like Hulk Hogan from the third rope number on me. As I was watching I caught myself saying out loud… no. no. no. no. no. no. No. No. No. NO. NO. NO. NO. And occasionally we need movies that will just ruin us. Promise. We do.

So if you haven’t seen this movie yet, go find it. Wherever. I’m sure it’s still in the theaters, and will be now that it was nominated so many times for so many different Oscars. If you are still unsure… check out this trailer. Then afterwards, we are going to dive into the spoilers and the details of this mind-job of a movie. So please don’t continue on past the trailer. Fair? Great.

Just watching that trailer again puts me back into that no no no no frame of mind! Gah. So good. So, once again. Spoiler land. You’ve been warned. I want to talk about the details of what happened in this movie so that we can get to the heart of this beast and talk about what is really going on here. Because it is really a gorgeous flick when you get down to it.

Manchester By The Sea Movie Overview

I’m going to assume you watched this movie closely. This is just going to be a high level overview ok? Sometimes I spend too much going over every single detail and I just don’t think it’ll provide that much value with this particular movie. I mean, sure the details matter. But it’s the overarching emotionally driven story that matters more.

The movie kicks off with Lee Chandler as a maintenance man working in a god-forsaken apartment building complex. But soon we find out that Lee’s brother Joe has passed away all of a sudden. So Lee heads up to his brother’s home and starts to take care of his brother’s affairs. And in the middle of it all Lee starts helping out with Joe’s son Patrick. A teen that obviously knew his father was going to die sooner or later. And throughout the preparation for the funeral, and caring for his body etc, Lee takes Patrick with him to hear the reading of the will. And shocker, Joe’s will says that Lee should be Patrick’s guardian. Fine. Cool.

Only glitch? Yeah… there’s a huge huge glitch here. And as the news is being read by the lawyer that Lee is to be the guardian we learn Lee’s horrendous backstory.

One night, Lee and his buddies were hanging out at the house and playing ping pong, drinking, and getting stoned. Randi, Lee’s wife, comes down and starts yelling at everyone and tells Lee to shut the party down, the kids (two girls) are trying to sleep after all. So Lee kicks everyone out and then puts a fire on in the fireplace because it’s cold and he wants the girls to be warm. He then decides he needs to go pick up a few things at the local stop and rob. So he walks, he is drunk after all, over to the store. And then walks back. When he gets back the house is a complete blaze and Randi is going freaking insane, just mental, trying to get the girls out of the house.

A few days later, Lee tells the story that he forgot to put the screen up after making the fire. The fire must have sparked and caused the fire. When the police tell him that he can go home he is shocked. Like, wha? Obviously you are incorrect. You really want to put me in jail… that’s what you meant to say. No, they say, it was obviously an accident. We can’t arrest you for forgetting to put the screen up. That isn’t how it works. So as he is walking out in a haze from his interview he pulls the gun out of a policeman’s holster and tries to kill himself, but the safety was on and he wasn’t able to do it.

Yeah. It’s a minor glitch that Lee’s brother has made him the guardian of his son Patrick. Never mind the fact that he can’t even live in the same town anymore because absolutely everyone knows what he did to his daughters, accident or no. But we’ll get into that in a bit. I promise.

So the larger point of this movie, the landmines we will find ourselves navigating, are completely about Lee and Patrick and how they will jointly navigate their collective grief (griefs, grieves?) together and if at all possible… just survive to tomorrow. And then do it again the next day.  And as they work on making arrangements for the funeral, jobs, moving, sustaining Patrick’s life in general Lee is trying to figure out how to raise a teen… all of a sudden. Because that’s what Lee needs right now… more stress.

Lee and the Perpetuity of the Stressful Life

I have not left my child in my hot car and forgotten them to die there. I have not gotten drunk and beaten my family senseless. My stress of the more garden variety type. And yet, I am Lee. I stoically walk through life wondering what is going to hit me next. And that is what we are watching Lee do – stoically walk through life in a daze, hopeful that his accreted layers of stress-enduced-armor will protect him as the rolling waves continue to flatten him.

On the Permanence Of Failure

One of the most intense themes wrapped up in the inner workings of Manchester by the Sea is the sense that no one, ever, is aloud to get a mulligan, or forgiveness for their mistakes. Sure, Lee burnt his house down, and accidentally killed his daughters. And no, please don’t imply that I believe this was just a mistake. It was a failure. It was a huge huge lapse of judgement morally. And the town of Manchester would definitely agree. Because they have blackballed Lee absolutely. And completely. No? He can only find employment in the surrounding suburbs. So the town has passed judgement, and that judgement is that Lee is not allowed to stay. He is completely unwelcome.

Which, is truly sad really. We all have sins that we are in need of forgiveness for. We all have done terrible, terrible wrongs that deserve grace. No? Ponder your life. Right. You get my point. And no, it may not be murdering your own children. But regardless, you aren’t perfect. I know, because if you are anything like me… right.

And yet, Lee’s brother Joe believed in Lee. Everyone doubted Lee. Hated Lee even. But Joe believed in his brother. So much so, he chose not to tell Lee what he was going to do. He just drafted the will in a way that would be best for both Lee and Patrick. Anyone else? They would have kept Lee as far away from Patrick as possible. Which we get a flash of justification for this thought when we see Lee fall asleep while making dinner. What did his daughters say in his dream? “We are on fire”? Something like that.

But look at the emotional journey that Lee took as a result of his brother’s impetuous and immature decision. Instead of caring solely for himself and maintaining his insular… wait, I can do this, insularityness? insularitiness? maintaining his solitariness? hahah. He grew to love someone other than himself. He grew into a someone that could care for others again. Which is why the ending works. No? You didn’t catch that leap? Wait for it.

The Ending of Manchester by the Sea Explained

It seems like the movies that we herald, and resound for us in this time and place are movies with dissonant endings. I only need one single piece of evidence to make my point. La La Land and its nominations for 14 Oscars. And yet, while we have dissonance here – we also have an enormously realistic response as well. Too often, Hollywood paints with stereotypes and a broad broad brush that works best in generalities. Hollywood is normally painfully kitschy in order to explain it’s movies to the dumbest person in the theater.  (Probably not a very popular comment, but true.) So what was Hollywood thinking when they made this film?!?? Because it’s beyond inscrutable… wait, what’s an inscrutable?!?

The triumph of this movie is just in the simple fact that Lee is still alive. He’s alive and he spent the duration of the time from the moment Joe died, until he was buried months later living outside of himself and caring for Patrick. And in so doing, Lee was able to open his mind to new possibilities and fairnesses to both himself and to others. Instead of letting his boss take advantage of him anymore (doing electrical illegally, getting minimum wage, being overworked, etc. you get my point) he has gone and found a better job only working with two buildings and a reasonable amount of work. The movie never meant to say that being a janitor was bad. It was that Lee allowed others to beat him up and put him down because he believed he deserved it. Right? So, in effect, Joe’s wishes for Lee to care for Patrick helped to effectively restore a sense of self worth that was completely AWOL.

Final Thoughts on Manchester by the Sea Explained

First Oscar for best picture movie for a streaming movie. The state of the union of movies and Netflix and Amazon? Amazing. I’m fairly agog at what Netflix, Amazon and the independents are pounding out regularly. Just baffling really. And that Amazon is being given a nod by Hollywood no less, for their efforts with this movie should be extraordinarily heartening to movie lovers the world round. But maybe that’s just me. Did we manage to get Manchester by the Sea Explained for you? No, obviously not. There is so much to this movie to be plumbed, it was only the merest of beginnings! What were your thoughts on the movie?

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21 Responses

  1. Hrishikesh

    I don’t know what to say I guess I gotta run over at this movie one more time to get a firm perspective now that I’ve read your post.Good post tho,well written.Keep up! (y)

  2. Aditya

    What about their baby son? You didn’t mention him at all… did he escape the fire?

    • Eli

      I’m glad someone else caught that too! I was confused as to why it said his two daughters and not three children

    • Kay

      I loved the movie, and I also noticed that the infant son is often left out of various movie reviews and comments. I believe that the writer/director had reasons for the scarcity regarding the lost son, because even in a later scene, where Lee falls asleep on the sofa (while the sauce burns on the stove) only his two daughters are in his dream. The absence of the little infant son in that sequence suggests to us that Lee cannot even bear to visualize the tragic loss of the poor infant, pre-verbal and utterly helpless, in his nightmarish dreams. This is perhaps an intended subtly on the writer’s part to remind us of the briefness of life. The voiceless infant is as unable to express his pain, as his father is unable to articulate his own unbearable grief.

      Thinking back to the earlier flashbacks, with Randi in bed with a cold, and Lee playfully lifting his little son out of the basinette, it’s heartbreaking when we realize the beautiful family they’ve lost. The loss of such innocence has a such poignant finality to it which is almost unimaginable, yet here is this extended family trying to navigate it all.

      When Randi meets Lee again by chance on the street, towards the end of the movie- her new son in tow from her recent marriage-it’s achingly sad to know what Lee must be thinking as he looks into the stroller. We never see that little one’s face, and we only see Randi and Lee’s lost son very briefly.

      Affleck and Williams are amazing in that street scene. Williams’ soul-baring, plaintive “Can we have lunch sometime? I love you, I’m sorry!” -her grief and guilt over her former accusations, is a real tour- de- force in that brief exchange.

      The film is so subtle that some commenters on other reviews were shocked to realize several moments of ironic humor were included throughout, such as the frozen food falling out of the freezer, the cell phone going off in the church, and, even at the moment Randi has collapsed in grief and is being lifted into the ambulance, we have horror and pathos and irony as the EMTs try several agonizing times to collapse the stretcher before they lift it in. Life’s pathos and humility are threaded lightly throughout the film.

      I watched the movie a second time and was amazed at the writing and performances. I feel the writer/director did well to trust the audience to have little bursts of realizations like this, long after the film ends. A hauntingly brilliant film, I feel, even as I was at times challenged by some of the musical choices.

      The hope of healing is well-noted, when the film’s last moment shows Lee and his nephew silently in the boat, life’s unpredictable waves surrounding them, with no promises for the future except perhaps that some thread of love, through sheer blood memory and family roots, may save them after all.

      • Neeraj

        Hey, that’s a very nice reply! I didn’t think of the movie the way you did. But now I do and thanks for this explanation! -Neerajrt

  3. Wes

    Wonderful film. Lonergan’s previous two films (especially “You Can Count On Me”) are likewise beautifully crafted and excellent character studies.

    Casey Affleck had been a likable actor for me. But his character in “Gone Baby Gone” blew me away (this was just before I watched him play Robert Ford.) In the right role in the right film since…he’s mustard. Flaming-hot scalding mustard.

    He holds his own here against the likes of Michelle Williams (wonderful actress) in the most awkward and compelling film conversation I’ve seen since “Closer.” He holds his own from start to finish: the man just oozes vulnerability at every turn.

    Even when we discover the facts behind his actions and mannerisms and violent outbursts fairly early…the film doesn’t glide from there on. The scene in the Police interrogation room (during and especially after) was heart-breaking. The look on his face when the questions were over…hey, man you earned the Oscar right there.

    Lovely film and acted so well by all-involved (young and experienced actors.) Kudos to all involved and I look forward to Lonergan’s next film in 2029. 😉

  4. LB

    agree with you, that the triumph was that lee is alive. he is unresponsive to anyone at the beginning of the film; lost is his own misery, incapable of accepting a hand. his brother, joe, purposefully created a realm for lee to re-engage in life.

    there are events that can penetrate to the point that there is no recovery. there is not always a happy ending.

    PTSD occurs when the mind cannot manage what it has witnessed. this film is the truest to that idea

    • Cookie Smith

      On point, LB.

      We can be broken and still be alive. We may even get the chance to live again, but rarely.

      Great film.

  5. Joe Yutkins

    When I saw Manchester by the Sea in the theater, I walked out in disbelief that the movie had ended the way it did. It loosely followed one of many hollywood formulas for a very short amount of the movie: Intro with sweeping arial shots to set the stage, the medias res Lee doing what he does, etc. But that formula, as loose as it was interpreted, got pulled as fast as a rug from under me. The will scene, which shows why Lee is Lee, is certainly a heartbreaking scene. The rocky start between Lee and Patrick eventually smoothes over, and I believed that Patrick’s presence, along with his own set of personal tragedies, (alcoholic mother, deceased father, etc.) would start to melt Lee’s heart. And on some level it does, but Lee is continuously pulled back into darkness, starting barroom fights that appear to be unprovoked, almost as a self-punishment. I think the idea was to show that Lee Chandler felt that he didn’t deserve to live any more than his daughters deserved to die, and the self-destructive path he chooses somehow obtains justice for his daughters. He sees himself as unworthy of forgiveness, while occasionally signaling that something dear has been taken from him permanently.

    But here’s the killer: The only person who could possibly understand what he has gone through, his ex-wife Randi, sincerely approaches him to ask him to talk. The level of discomfort Lee exhibits is palpable. Randi spills her guts, apologizing to Lee for things she has said about him. Ah…here it is, the overflow of emotion she displays surely will bring Lee to tears. The fact that she opens up to him completely, telling him she loves him, blurting out that she knows that both of their hearts were broken, suggested to me that Lee would have no choice but to break down to the only other human being left who seems to have empathy for him. She has forgiven him, and desperately wants him to meet for her over lunch to try to talk things out and to heal. My gut tells me that if I were Lee Chandler, the idea of Randi’s forgiveness would have brought me to my knees. What a powerful statement Randi shares with him. Instead, Lee breaks traditional hollywood formula and continues to alienate Randi. He shakes his head mumbling “no, there’s nothing there” referring to, I imagine, his soul. I wanted to grab the screen and scream, “No, don’t do this you fool!” This seemed to be Lee’s last shot at redemption, but I guess he felt unworthy of even that slight comfort.

    It’s taken me some time to digest the true meaning of the movie, and the best I can come up with is, as mentioned in above comments, there isn’t always a happy ending.

    The movie ended almost as it began: a lost soul trudging through a damaged life gets briefly reunited with the only family he has left, then chooses to go back to trudging through a damaged life.

    Although I left the theater somewhat unfulfilled, I still consider this to be one of the most heartfelt and poignant movies I have seen in a long time. For me, it’s right up there with Forrest Gump, except in MBTS, Lieutenant Dan never gets his “new legs”.

  6. Blake

    My thoughts:
    The end of MBTS suggests that Lees brothers unconditional love for him continues through his son Patrick, who is ultimately stronger willed than his uncle (Lee) who will forever be plagued with guilt. I think Lees brother was afraid of what Lee will become without him. So Patrick clearly is the true guardian here…

    • Brock

      I’d have to agree. There is that point where Lee is telling Patrick, who has just lost his father and in a way his mother again, he ‘can’t beat it.’ Different circumstances of course, but Patrick has no intentions of leaving town or giving up on his life.

      I was wondering about the part where the homeowner is talking to Lee as he’s working on the HVAC. He was kind of saying how life is sometimes cruel and tragedy can strike at any moment, but you need to find ways to move. I guess it’s his relationship with Patrick that helps him move on and maybe that’s as far as he can move forward.

  7. Debbie

    Can someone tell me…. does lee decide he can’t stay because there are too many ghosts and the town hates him or does he decide he can’t stay because he knows he’s an alcoholic that can’t beat it and therefore can never really properly care for another person….

    • Taylor Holmes

      I personally think he realized it didn’t matter if he beat the alcoholism, the town was crucifying him regardless. Bigger yet, he learned to love again. And even though he left he was totally vested and committed. He turned an enormous corner. I personally think he beat the alcoholism… but that’s just me.

    • mark

      I want to add an alternate ending. He slips off the back of the boat and drowns himself. Depressing, but that goes with “the permanence of failure” which is a real, legitimate theme. It’s only in Disney fantasies where any wrong can be righted. He was a good man in a tough situation. He closed all the books: made sure the kid was taken care of, got the boat fixed, but “just can’t beat it (the demons).” Surely the nightmare of burning daughters shows that. The furnace scene foreshadows a possible suicide at sea: they just went for the mixed, kinda happy ending insetad.

      • Ned

        The furnace scene does foreshadow such a possibility of a suicide at sea but I prefer to think Lee has a reason to keep holding on so as to check in from time to time on his nephew.

        This is a kind of movie which gives a realistic telling about horrific loss, guilt, unforgiveness and realizing that people can’t always fix what’s broken. I recommend watching a comedy immediately after this movie ends for an emotional roller coaster effect. Kidding aside, this movie tops the list as one of the saddest to watch.

  8. Lisa

    The film was haunting. Of course I wanted Lee to have a good life and rise to the occasion to take care of Patrick. But didn’t happen… and yes that’s real life. My dad doesn’t want to see his family anymore for past 20 years and that won’t change. I don’t even want it to change. Real life.

    I was disturbed that Patrick (16) was going to be adopted by George. Patrick already had a loving father, and it feels to me like he’s being replaced. Maybe it is a good thing so that Patrick doesn’t feel alone in the world?

    I guess I find that I’m more concerned about Patrick. Will George and wife be good parents??

  9. justin b

    I would have to agree. The way you wrote this is pretty awful. An astounding number of your facts is incorrect. It wasn’t a spark that caused the fire, it was a log that rolled out on to the floor. It wasn’t just his two daughters that burned, it was three children: two daughters and a baby son.

    I have to completely disagree: it was 100% a mistake that he didn’t put the screen in front of the fireplace. You have to always look at a person’s state of mind and intention: did Lee purposely leave the screen off? No. He was drunk and mistakenly forgot to put the screen in front of the fireplace. So, in my mind, both a mistake and a failure on his part. I don’t think I would call it a sin though. A sin is a willful or deliberate violation, and he didn’t intentionally leave the screen off of the fireplace. So, in my opinion, it isn’t a “sin”.

    Your dialogue of the police interview isn’t completely accurate, which is a little misleading. It’s close, but not spot-on.

    What you say his daughter says to him in his dream/nightmare is incorrect. She says “Can’t you see we’re burning?”

    You also need a complete grammar check of your entire post, by yourself, or, if you aren’t capable, then by someone else.

    I hate how people carelessly post articles like this, misleading and misguiding people with inaccurate information from the film.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Hey there Justin,
      Thanks for weighing in. I’ll give this post a complete re-sweep and QC edit. My apologies.

      But can I point out, that while your comment was very well written, it is “are wrong”, not “is wrong”? And I only do that to show just how easy it is to make a mistake. Since I wrote this article, I have an editor that reads and edits my crap copiously. I’m not an editor, nor do I want to be.

      My only interest in talking about this movie was to discuss his culpability and the faults in his actions… which, you spoke to directly. And I appreciated. Normally I stay pretty far away from straight dramas (though I am writing about Ashes in the Snow, which is decidedly dramatic), and stick to more headjobby type films. So, yeah, definitely not my proverbial wheelhouse. But it introduced me to you… so there is that.

      Regardless, I appreciate the criticism, and the comment all the same. I do this for kicks and giggles… barely making enough money from the ads to cover the server costs. So yeah, this isn’t even hardly a hobby for me, let alone a job. And at the same time, that isn’t an excuse. I could have done a lot better with this post. Again, my apologies.


  10. justin b

    (I’m not sure why it’s not letting me Reply back to you, so I guess I’ll just make a new post.)

    I assume you mean “are incorrect”, not “are wrong”? No offense, but I’m just a “Commentor”, (not the author of a blog), therefore I didn’t do any major grammar checking…

    Overall, I like the post. I just think some of the details from the movie you wrote about are flat-out inaccurate, which I think can be a little misleading.

    I do find it interesting how viewers of the movie put Lee at having different levels of culpability. (You think of it as a failure, not a mistake. Whereas I see more the mistake in it.) Goes to show just how different we all are…


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