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The Gradual Deterioration of a Heart: A Look at Manchester by the Sea

The Gradual Deterioration of a Heart: A Look at Manchester by the Sea

Gerard DeCristofaro • January 31, 2017 • Art • 

Lee Chandler spends his days alone as a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. He rejects socializing with others and has no problem snapping at people when he is irritated. One morning, he receives a call. His brother Joey has had another heart attack and has passed away.

Revealed in one of Manchester By the Sea’s many flashbacks, Joey was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a disease which gradually deteriorates the heart muscles, set to claim his life in five to 10 years. The news is as damaging to Lee as it is to Joey, but not necessarily because of the bond they share.

Lee leaves the hospital to inform his nephew, Patrick, of his father’s death. Getting closer to Manchester, a five-second clip of Lee on a boat, happy and at ease, is sandwiched in between shots of him anxiously driving. This is a memory that is in stark contrast to the downtrodden Lee who gets in bar fights.


Lee (Casey Affleck) and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges)
Claire Folger/Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios via AP

Manchester By the Sea does not get its power from the flashbacks, but from the way the film’s editor and director chose to use them. In an interview with Hugh Hart of the website Where to Watch, editor Jennifer Lame states that she and director Kenneth Lonergan “realized the movie would have a bigger emotional effect on people if we don’t use any kind of trigger. That way, you feel like the past and present are merged in one.” Gradually, the film reveals more moments from the past: Lee and his brother on a boat with a young Patrick; Lee enjoying moments with his wife and kids; Lee playing ping pong with his friends. All of these things are noticeably absent from the present day for Lee. And the film’s most haunting flashback, occurring an hour into the film, reveals exactly why.

At this point, the flashbacks decrease as the great tragedy of our protagonist has been revealed, his own heart having been gradually deteriorated by the painful memories that come back to him on his return. With the method of flashback established, an investigation into the placement of the memories reveals how Lee deals with his grief, a method unique to film and its ability to jump to a different time and space from one frame to the next.

Unlike painting or sculpture, film is a duration-based artform. In other words, the viewer must allow the film and its interior action to play out before them, in contrast to observing a painting where it is up to the observer to decide how long he wants to study the painting. Add that with the fact that since it’s inception, most mainstream films have a main character or two for the audience to relate to and “see things” his/her way. Lonergan wants us to identify with Lee, and then experience time as he experiences time by drifting into his mind and out of the present.  

One example is the revealing of the tragedy that struck Lee eight years prior to his return to Manchester. It is true that waiting until an hour into the film to show why Lee is so disgruntled is a narrative device that leaves all audience members stunned and invested for the remainder of the film, but it also serves to reveal the inner workings of his mind. It is only when Lee finds out that his brother gave him custody of his nephew that Lee is triggered into remembering the past event that changed his life, the audience seeing it as he remembers it in the lawyer’s office (past and present merged). This shows that only the prospect of literally returning to his past was enough for Lee to remember what happened, the pain of imagining people he will never see again being too great to bear. Similarly, the film opens with Lee on a boat with Patrick and Joe, before the tragedy strikes. On second viewing, the scene now plays out as a happy moment in which Lee holds onto because it can happen for him again. Noticeably, Joe’s face is not seen, perhaps because his death is imminent and Lee does not want to think about loved ones he will never see again.

Lee (Casey Affleck)Claire Folger/Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios via AP

Lee (Casey Affleck)
Claire Folger/Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios via AP

If you do not know by now, Manchester by the Sea is a very depressing and grim film, but a necessary one. It is not so much about dealing with a tragedy as it is about living with the memory of it several years after the fact, and the film does not strive to leave the audience in a joyous mood when leaving the theater. I once read that remembering the future that never happened is the most painful thing for a human heart to bear, but this film shows that remembering a past that stole your future from you might as well be impossible to live with as well. But I am happy that the film ends, not with a flashback, but with a moment very reminiscent of the flashback Lee had been holding on to since the film’s first scene. Not an expectation, hope or memory, but a moment shared with a loved one in a town he failed to forget.

Manchester by the Sea


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1 Comment

  1. This review had me from the the start. I really got a feel for the film and it made me want to see it again. Well written.


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