I went with Dan's mom to see Manchester by the Sea last night, not having any idea what it was about or any opinion about Casey Affleck, other than a certain tendency to discredit him because he's Ben Affleck's brother. There's nothing really wrong with Ben Affleck either, except he seems like a total guy, pretty un-nuanced. I am basing this only on the movie Good Will Hunting, which I haven't seen in ten years.
But anyway, it's a good thing I didn't have a clue about the plot of the movie, because I probably would have declined to go. In case you're also unaware, it's a story about a man who works as a janitor in Massachusetts. He's not surly, exactly, but he's not friendly, doesn't connect with people, drinks a lot of beer, and punches men out in bars. You wonder what's wrong with him. His brother (played by one of my favorite actors, Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame--never saw it--and Bloodline--did see all of the episodes and loved them) dies and Lee/Casey goes back to Manchester to handle the funeral arrangements. He's stoic when he sees his brother's body in the morgue, and you learn in a series of flashbacks that his brother had congestive heart failure, so his death wasn't unexpected. He also has a sixteen year old son and Lee soon discovers that his brother has left his house and boat to the brother, as well as guardianship of his boy, Patrick. The movie moves back and forth between present day and past as we discover why it is that Lee is so hard to reach. I knew when we saw a flashback of him with his then-wife and their three children that things were not going to end well. He didn't appear to have any children in the present day, which meant that only something terrible could have happened to them.
Do you want to know what it was? Keep reading.
Turns out that about six years prior, he had a bunch of loud guy friends over to play pool, they got wired and drunk, he sent them home at 2 a.m., and then stumbled out into the snow to get more beer. When he returned home, the house was on fire. His wife lived, but the children did not. Later, you see two of them emerge from the fire in black body bags. Before he left the house, he started a fire in the fireplace to keep everyone warm, but forgot to put the grate up. Hence, he is accidentally the cause of his children's deaths.
What's great about the movie is that we don't get all of these scenes. Much of that part of the story line is told by Lee to the police after the fact. We also aren't privy to the wife's reaction at the time, though we can imagine it was terrible, and we later see the two of them interact, her trying to apologize for the terrible things she's said. She has moved on, as much as possible, is remarried and has a new baby. He has not moved on.
The conflict of the movie is whether or not returning home and trying to raise his dead brother's son will redeem him, or bring him back to life somehow. And the other great and horrible thing about the movie is that it does not save him. His brother has tried, after his death, to give him another chance to become part of the living world, instead of dragging around alone, but Lee can't do it. At least, not completely. He's better, but, as he tells Patrick near the end, "I can't beat it." He can't forgive himself, he can't forget his children, and he can't trust himself to take care of another person. That's realistic, but does not make for a joyful viewing. We end the movie with Patrick and Lee on the boat fishing, and we see that Lee is better than he was, but also that he will probably never recover. I cried more than once, but the movie isn't sentimental. It is humorous, but I can't recommend it unless you are less sensitive than me, or don't mind stifling back sobs in the middle of a theater. It's also two hours and fifteen minutes long. You keep thinking it's about to end, and then it doesn't. Kind of like grief.