Can I even put into words how much I loved this movie?
Let me preface this by saying that I thought I would like it. I thought I’d like it a lot. However, I didn’t realize I would love it. From the trailers and the buzz surrounding it, it sounded like just my kind of movie: devastating, raw, tragic, and moving were words used frequently to describe the story. Having seen it, I can say every word captures the tone of the movie perfectly.
To answer my first question: I’m going to try. And that starts by talking about Casey Affleck.
I’m not familiar with him as an actor. I didn’t think I’d seen him in anything before until I found him on IMDb and found that he was in Good Will Hunting, and apparently, at least for me, he wasn’t all that memorable. In Manchester, however, he blew my mind. His performance is so powerful because of all the places he didn’t go as an actor. Given his character’s cirumstances, he could have taken that character to any end of the emotional spectrum, and instead he chose to leave it entirely. He is so empty, so closed off, so guarded, my heart ached every time he unhunched his shoulders for a second. When Patrick asked him if he wanted anything after Lee was beat up at the bar, and Lee sat up and said “no thanks, buddy,” that tiniest note of tenderness hurt. When Sandy’s mom offered him dinner and he said “oh, no,” that smallest hint of flattered surprise tugged at my heart. His posture, his vacant expression that was never really vacant at all, just restrained, the inflection in his voice all combined to make me feel so, so much sympathy, love, and regret for his character. On top of that, the juxtaposition of who he was before with who he became made the aftermath even harder to stomach. Before, he was so open that he and his wife could swear and yell at each other easily and make up a second later. After, he is so utterly detached from the world that to make him speak more than a few tightly muttered words at once is an accomplishment.
I’ll start by looking at the movie chronologically. The beginning of the movie was jarring. I was expecting the tragedy right away, but I found it to be really funny, especially with the woman who was “sexually attracted to her handyman”. At first, I thought I was terrible for laughing, but as the movie continued, I realized that that’s the point. That’s part of the magic sort of realism that makes the movie so affecting and memorable. Life is like that too, filled with little, inappropriate moments of humor in the middle of everything else. Those small, funny moments in the film never felt forced or purposely inserted comic relief. They were just part of the story.
This was a really small moment, and I’m not even sure if it was intentional, but after Lee returns from his fishing trip and his wife asks him how many beers he has, he tells her seven for eight hours and does some mental math to work out how many that is an hour. I couldn’t do that mental math in five minutes. That was a strong, subtle moment (like almost every important detail in this strong, subtle movie) that showed just how smart Lee is, which emphasizes his total detachment from the world even more clearly. He can do calculations to four or five decimal places in a few seconds while hammered, but he is determined to work as a janitor, a job he evidently hates, for minimum wage.
I loved Patrick. He’s sort of a jerk, at least in the beginning, but he never gets to be too annoying or mean. To me, he was sort of a lovable asshole and just a typical kind teenage boy. The scene with his breakdown, though, was one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Lee’s willingness to stay in his room until he fell asleep, even if it was silently and coldly, was touching. Speaking of powerful scenes…
Yes, Michelle Williams was only in two or three scenes. But she earned the right to be on the movie poster and the picture that’s at the top of this blog post and be listed as a leading actress from that scene alone. That scene. You know the one I’m talking about. There’s nothing much to discuss about it. There’s not much to say without being really, really repetitive: incredible, moving, raw, devastating, heartbreaking. All adjectives I’ve already used ad nauseam in this discussion. All I will say is if this movie had made me cry, that would have been the scene. It hurt. Everything hurt. I wanted to give Lee a hug throughout the whole movie, and right there, in this scene, I wanted to jump through the screen. Especially when Randi told him she didn’t want him to be dead. She was so right, and she put into words exactly what we had been watching Lee do to himself the whole movie. The next two screens were like extensions of that scene, just in new settings; the fight in the bar was just another outburst of anger because he was trying so hard to keep his emotions away, and his tears at George’s house were, finally, a bit of the release from his earlier conversation.
As I briefly mentioned above, I didn’t cry. I seldom cry during movies, but I want to specifically point out that I didn’t in this one because a lot of people have called it a tearjerker. For me, the sadness and the depth came from watching Lee struggle to deal with everything he was going through (the strongest example: after telling the story of what happened, his desperate, pointless attempt at suicide), not the fire itself. I may be soulless for saying so, but I didn’t feel much about the death of his kids. I felt it in a detached sort of way, and obviously children died, so that was sad, but I didn’t feel their death like I could feel how deeply and painfully it affected Lee.His complete and total detachment from the world was what hurt more than anything else. That detachment made the movie devastating and painful, but it influenced the tone of the movie and its context as a whole; it was never channeled into one particular scene that was emotional enough to make me cry.
That being said, part of me wishes there had been just one scene with a lot of emotion. The majority of the movie was below the surface, but maybe it could have benefited from just one scene where Lee could directly deal with what had happened to him, or where he could come to some kind of resolution or confrontation with himself or his demons. I think the scene when the smoke alarm went off and his daughters appeared for a second in a dream was a missed opportunity. They could have explored a lot with that scene, even in a minute or two. Almost every conversation he had ended with, “Let’s not talk about this now.” Even the most powerfully emotional scene in the movie, when he runs into Randi, ended that way. I wish that just once, he had been forced to talk about it.
That being said, I still adored this film. Beautiful cinematography, to the point where the scenery felt like another character. Wonderful score. I really loved how the music would sometimes drown out the dialogue without being obvious or overbearing. The nonlinear storytelling, and the way older scenes were added so sharply to the current story, felt totally natural and added even more to what I like to call the emotionally enhanced realism of the movie. In spite of its over two hour run time, I wanted it to be longer.
I think there are two dozen more things to mention, but I have to cut myself off at some point. Real quick, some amazing moments I didn’t mention earlier: the boys arriving home from their fishing trip to find Joe’s wife on the couch, which was the only hint of her illness and was a surprising, unconventional way to inform the viewer; the total lack of any romantic connections with Lee, which I am so thankful for because adding that element could have happened easily with a different writer and that would have ruined the whole dynamic; and the hug that Lee gave Patrick at the end that split my heart in two.
As my last word, I want to talk about the last scene. Well, second to last, I suppose, because isn’t the fishing the real last scene? Anyways, I’m talking about the scene where Lee is fiddling with a ball as he and Patrick walk together. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t realize it was the end of the film. I watched him play with the ball and couldn’t stop thinking about what a powerful metaphor it was, and then the story was over that was the thought I was left with.
Lee indifferently passed the ball to Patrick, who dropped it. Lee kept walking and told him to let it go. Patrick ran around for a good ten seconds, trying to catch the ball, and threw it again, then missed again, then ran and found it one more time. He threw it to Lee and this time, Lee caught it.
That ball is Lee’s outlook on life after everything, after the fire, after Joe’s death. Nothing mattered to him after his kids died. He let everything go. Then Patrick became his responsibility, and Patrick would not let him let anything go anymore. No matter what Lee did, Patrick would not let him give up.