Sometimes we’re not sent to hell: We live there already.
Lee Chandler was happy once. He had a wife. Three children. His whole family—father, brother, the entire brood—lived in Manchester, Mass., a pretty, chilly community on Cape Ann. Brother Joe owned a boat. And sometimes, when the weather permitted, Joe would take his own son, Patrick, as well as Lee out to sea—a bright white boat bobbing between gray water and gray sky.
But then a tragic accident shattered Lee’s life. Now he lives alone in Boston, if you could call it living. He works as a janitor, cleaning toilets and shoveling snow. He sees each day with the same cold eyes, greets each moment with the same unsmiling mouth. Then, when work’s done, he heads to his cramped basement apartment, shuts those cold eyes for a few hours until he must open them again.
He doesn’t try to kill himself—not anymore—so he just kills his time, day by meaningless day.
Then one day, Lee gets word that Joe’s in the hospital again—another heart attack. He rushes back to Manchester. But by the time he arrives, it’s too late: Joe’s gone. The man who for so many years served as Lee’s only light and support in a cold, gray world is now a cold, gray slab in the hospital basement.
Lee breaks the news to Patrick during his high school hockey practice. The next few days are a storm of preparations for the funeral, for the wake, for what comes next.
Joe’s lawyer knows what comes next: The house, the boat, it’s all Patrick’s … eventually. But he’s only 15—a child in the eyes of the law, if not his own. He needs a guardian. And in his will, Joe said he wanted that guardian to be Lee.
Lee gasps. There’s no way, he protests. Joe made a mistake. He can’t take care of a child. He won’t.
But who will? The last time Lee saw Patrick’s mother, she was drunk. Insane. The only other relatives live in Minnesota. They have no other family. Joe understood that Lee and Patrick shared a special bond, and Patrick needs family right now.
And maybe Joe, as he wrote out his will, knew that Lee could use a little family, too.
If we meet a stereotypically “good” person in Manchester by the Sea, it’s Joe. Everyone in town thinks well of him. And when Lee lashes out at some of those townsfolk after his death, a peacemaker invokes Joe’s name—as if Joe’s good name alone could offer him some protection. In a series of flashbacks, we’re given insight into Joe’s character and his care of the people around him. He clearly loves his son, and does his best to try to protect him from his wife’s difficulties. Even in death, Joe does what he can to provide for the teen.
But it’s in Joe’s relationship with Lee that we see him most fully. Joe stands by his brother without reservation—insisting that Lee check in with him when he seems suicidal, buying furniture for Lee’s pitiful apartment and remaining steadfastly loyal to him when everyone else seems to melt away.
Lee is a shell of his former self after his disaster. But even in his emotionally debilitated state, he still cares for Patrick. He’s no substitute father. He’s barely a guardian, quite frankly. But he still wants what’s best for the boy (even if many of us would disagree with him as to what that “best” would be.)
Patrick has his strong points, too. He can be a pretty conscientious kid at times, particularly as he comes to realize that Lee’s a still-damaged individual. And while Lee and Patrick have an odd, often angry relationship, they’re nevertheless bound together tightly—more like an older and younger brother in some ways than father and son. Though Patrick pushes back against many of Lee’s seemingly arbitrary decisions and disturbing moods, it’s clear by the end that Patrick wants little more than to live with Lee. He’s not Patrick’s dad, but he’s as close as Patrick can get.
Patrick’s mom, Elise, has changed a lot since Lee last saw her, when she was drunk and acting crazy. She’s now with a devout Christian guy named Jeffrey. A picture of Jesus hangs on the wall of the dining room, and some Christian tchotchkes decorate nearby shelves.
Jeffrey and Elise invite Patrick for a meal and say a prayer. There’s an awkward conversation about whether Patrick said “Amen” or not after his prayer. (He did, but Elise says he didn’t need to, since they’re not trying to convert him.)
After the meal, Lee picks Patrick up and asks him what Jeffrey was like.
“He was very … Christian,” Patrick says.
“You know that we’re Christian too, right?” Lee tells him, reminding him that they’re Catholic.
Joe’s funeral is held in a Catholic church and presided over by a priest. There’s a reference to a Bat Mitzvah. We glimpse a church in passing. There’s talk of a high school production of Godspell.
Patrick—who, you’ll remember, is 15—has two girlfriends, neither of whom knows about the other.
“Do you really have sex with both girls?” Lee asks him.
“We don’t just play computer games,” Patrick says, though he admits after a bit that he’s just having sex with one of them; as for the other, he’s “working on it.”
Patrick asks Lee if it’s OK if the first one, Sylvie, spends the night at the house, adding that his father allowed it and suggesting that the girl’s parents are OK with it too (though her parents believe that she sleeps downstairs on the couch). Lee gives his permission once (we see Sylvie in Patrick’s bed, still with a top on), but denies permission the next time.
Patrick and the other girl, Sandy, want to have sex, but her mother keeps interrupting them (even though she’s aware that they’re fooling around behind the girl’s closed door). Patrick encourages Lee to spend half an hour with Sandy’s mother so they can finally have sex. But Lee fails miserably at small talk, so Sandy’s mother knocks again, forcing the two to scramble for clothes. (We see both of them in their underwear and a condom is involved as well.) Later, Lee drops Patrick and Sandy off at Patrick’s house and tells them he has to do a couple hours of errands—clearly unspoken permission for the two of them to consummate their relationship while he’s gone. We later see the couple laying together, both covered by a blanket. Sandy wears a shirt, Patrick does not.
In a flashback, we see Lee try to make out with his wife, Randi, who’s sick in bed with a cold. He strips down to his underwear and lies on top of her, kissing her as she jokingly complains that his attention is making it difficult for her to breathe. In another flashback, we see Joe’s wife, Elise, passed out on a couch as Joe, Lee and Patrick come in. While nothing critical is shown, Elise is clearly not wearing anything on the lower part of her body, and Patrick gapes at this view of his mother.
Lee overhears one of is janitorial clients telling someone that she has sexual fantasies about him.
In Boston, Lee punches two guys in a bar; a squadron of patrons swarms in to separate them. In Manchester, he slugs someone who accidentally bumps into him, sending that bar into chaos as well. Several people hit him before a friend can separate everyone—but Lee starts the ruckus up again. We later see the badly beaten Lee bearing a bloody nose and cuts on his face. (A conversation indicates someone might’ve taken a baseball bat to Lee during the fracas.) Patrick checks a fellow hockey player hard into the boards a couple of times: They fight, falling to the ice in a swirl of fisticuffs.
We see Joe’s corpse. Someone sarcastically says she wants to slit her throat instead of going to a relative’s Bat Mitzvah. In flashback, Lee and Joe joke with Patrick about attracting schools of sharks to Joe’s boat with Patrick’s blood.
[Spoiler Warning] One night when Lee and Randi are still married, Lee puts an extra log in the fireplace after Randi and the children go to bed and walks to a nearby store to buy more beer. When he returns, his house is engulfed in flames. His wife is taken to the hospital the next morning, suffering from smoke inhalation. Firefighters dig through the rubble and carry away body bags holding the pitifully small remains of Lee’s three children. When he’s taken in for questioning, he tells the whole story and is released. “You made a horrible mistake,” he’s told, but “it’s not a crime to forget to put the screen on the fireplace.” As Lee walks out of the interrogation room, he grabs an officer’s gun, points it at his own head and tries to shoot himself—his suicide attempt foiled by the gun’s safety. He’s quickly surrounded by law enforcement.
About 85 f-words, 15 s-words and one c-word, the latter uttered by a teen. God’s name is misused about 15 times—four of those paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused about a dozen times. Other profanities include “a–,” “b–ch” and “h—.”
Lee drinks a great deal. The night of the tragedy, he and more than a dozen buddies drink and play ping pong in Lee’s basement. (He later admits to police that there was marijuana and cocaine at the party, too, though moviegoers don’t see those two drugs.) Lee tells police that he walked to the store to get more beer because he was still too wasted to drive.
In flashback, Lee returns from a trip on Joe’s boat, and Randi asks him if the beer held out OK. He says that he only drank eight brews during the seven-hour trip: Randi jokes that that’s hardly drinking at all. “I told you I was cutting down,” Lee tells her with a smile.
Lee gets drunk in two bars, resulting in fights both times.
Patrick can be very disrespectful to adults at times. Lee bears the brunt of Patrick’s snide, profanity-laden rebukes, but his hockey coach gets an earful, too.
For more than 2,000 years, the world of fiction—plays, books and now movies—has been split neatly into two classic categories: comedy and tragedy. Comedies were the stories where everything turned out just fine. Tragedies were the stories where everything didn’t.
I like the predictability of fiction in that way. I like my happy endings. And when the endings aren’t happy, I at least like to know there’s a reason for the tragedy that unfolds. In a world that so often feels arbitrary and even needlessly cruel, fiction gives us lives with meaning—strands of story that lead, unmistakably, somewhere.
Stories of this kind reflect the truth that we Christians so deeply believe: that however strange and random our lives might feel in any given moment, they’re leading to something. Our stories are part of God’s great Story, and they are as important to that Story as those of kings and presidents.
Manchester by the Sea is, as such, a strange thread of a story. A tragic mistake lies at its core, and a sudden, seemingly meaningless death serves as its catalyst. We’re given two people to care about, two damaged souls to root for. And by the end, their stories still feel unfinished. We are left with not an inspirational coda or devastating moral, but … an ellipsis. Broken relationships that haven’t been mended. Damaged souls that haven’t been healed. The story is still in transit.
It doesn’t help that our characters make such poor choices in the midst of their pain, of course. Patrick’s teenage promiscuity is winked at and sometimes purposefully enabled. Disrespectful behavior and horrific language further smear the movie’s canvas. Avoidable mistakes abound. The most dedicated Christians we see here—the people who should hold the secret to the healing that’s so desperately needed here—are ineffective oddballs, impotent and foolish in the face of such need.
And yet even amid such shattered brokenness, there are fragile hints of redemption—if not in the Christian sense of that word, at least in a relational one.
Wonderfully acted and deeply felt, Manchester by the Sea is also a difficult movie in every way. And it is perhaps at its most difficult when it reminds us that our lives are both comedy and tragedy. That, in our finite eyes, they all end in ellipses.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.