This article contains spoilers for Manchester by the Sea. You should watch it first, for these reasons.
Looking at its poster you could be forgiven for thinking Michelle Williams is the co-star of Manchester By The Sea. In reality she is a peripheral figure; a ghost from the past, returning to haunt the present.
The film begins with Williams nowhere in sight. We follow Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a dysfunctional, dishevelled figure as he goes about his work as a handyman in a Boston apartment block. He fixes things, he talks rarely, and when his job is finished he slumps into a barstool and drinks. Something tragic must have happened to leave him in this catatonic existence, and as fate would have it, something tragic is about to happen again.
His brother dies – suddenly, of a heart condition – and Lee is left as the legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). They scramble together a makeshift relationship in the wake of this sudden death, with Lee reluctantly looking after Patrick, and hating every second. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than Manchester-by-the-Sea, and that’s for one reason: Michelle Williams.
Through flashbacks we gradually meet her as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. Their relationship seems happy and peaceful, full of good-natured arguing and grouching about whose turn it is to look after the kids. It’s about as normal a relationship as anyone could hope for. Most tellingly, Lee actually looks happy with her. It’s a million miles from the mopey blank slate we see in the present. So what happened to separate the two of them? And, you start to wonder, where exactly are their children now?
We next see Williams on the night that will change hers and Lee’s lives. He’s playing table tennis with some mates in their rec room, and causing a racket while the kids are trying to sleep. Williams comes downstairs to chew them out, relishing in her no-nonsense character. Her Boston accent is strong and she means business.
Duly, the house is cleared, and Williams returns to bed. And that’s when tragedy strikes.
Lee goes out to buy more beers, enjoying a drunken wander to the nearest shop. When he returns, his house is in flames.
Randi made it out. Her blackened face is coughing from a nearby ambulance. The children did not.
It’s hard to capture that scene in words, or even to think about it. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan takes a similar approach to representing the tragedy. He keeps the incident a distant murmur until this devastating flashback, almost like he’s trying to help Lee forget about it, as he so clearly wants to.
Suddenly everything about Lee’s demeanour in the present makes perfect sense. He’s not your standard issue self-destructive alcoholic fuck-up. He’s done terrible things to those he loves and he will never forgive himself for it. Casey Affleck is incredible at capturing this buried pain, but he’s more than matched by Michelle Williams in her final scene, which steals the show.
Back in the present, Lee finally runs into the past he’d been trying to escape. He turns a corner and walks into Randi, newly married with a baby in tow.
They speak, hesitantly, with the wounds of the past still going deep. Everything about their demeanour says so much about the journeys they’ve been on since that fateful day. Williams is no longer the loveable battleaxe, but instead quiet and afraid, as if speaking too strongly might shatter the fragile Affleck.
She is looking to make amends for the things she said after the fire, but Affleck is unwilling to accept her forgiveness. He doesn’t feel he deserves it. It’s a heart-breaking encounter, and like the rest of the film, so little is explicitly said.
Williams says that “I should fucking burn in hell for what I said”; Affleck’s unspoken reply is that he should burn in hell for what he did.
We never learn exactly what she said in the aftermath of the fire. Our imaginations can fill that gap with things more horrible than any words Lonergan could muster.
This scene is the perfect encapsulation of everything that Lee and Randi have been through since the fire, and Affleck and Williams make it sing. The complex strands of guilt and blame, forgiveness and love, are knotted together inextricably. They say so little, but every word tells you that inside, they’re broken.