The ending of Manchester by the Sea has a bit more depth than what it might seem. In the simplest terms, by film’s end, Lee has had a minor breakthrough with his grief and guilt. That’s it. This isn’t some Inception-like mystery where the movie ends with a seeming twist. Instead, it’s nothing more than a man crippled by grief and guilt who has, metaphorically speaking, just started to learn to walk again. What makes this ending trickier than it seems is that it relies entirely on showing rather than telling.
We’ll discuss the film’s last two scenes. Lee and Patrick walking on the road after the funeral. Then them fishing on the boat. But first we’ll do a short overview of showing-versus-telling. In total, this should help clarify why the movie ends the way it does and the point it’s trying to get across by ending that way.
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Showing versus telling
“Showing versus telling” is interesting to discuss because it has two different scopes. A macro scope and a micro scope. The macro scope can be summed up as “scene” versus “summary”.
It’s summary if I say, “The US Civil War resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. It also revealed a lot about the value systems of the citizenry and government.”
It’s scene if I were to write, “All throughout the night, strong, chill winds had passed through the camp. Of the thousands and thousands of men laying upon the ground, how many had slept? Cold as they were. Listening to the canvas tents flap and crack, reminding them of gun shots. Even though only a few slept, no one spoke. What could they speak about other than what the morning would bring? Tomorrow would be the first day of the battle of Gettysburg…” and on and on and on. I would write thousands of words just to show you how bloody and violent and sad the Civil War was, and why the two sides were fighting. Some Union soldiers would be valorous and give speeches about equality and the end of slavery. While some Confederates would be more villainous. This would demonstrate the difference between what the North was fighting for and what the South was fighting for.
Every narrative film shows us a story rather than tells us a story. Otherwise, Manchester-by-the-Sea could have been one minute long. “There’s a guy who’s sad because he accidentally killed his kids. A decade later, his brother dies. This guy has to go and take care of his nephew, but doesn’t want to because he’s scared. By the end of the movie, he’s a little less scared. That’s it.” Then only real use of summary/telling in the macro sense is when we get a montage.
The micro scope is different. You’re not worried about “scene” versus “summary”. You’re worried about implication versus direct statement. Which is essentially the difference between a Disney movie and a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
In The Lion King we have the ghost of Mufasa straight up tell Simba, “You have forgotten who you are.” Everything is laid out. This is what Simba’s done wrong, this is why he’s dong it, this is what he has to do to make it right. Direct statement.
Watch There Will Be Blood and there’s no direct statement about business versus religion. No character gives a speech about business and religion. But the film puts a business man and a man of religion in opposition of one another. We see them battle each other. We see them manipulate each other, humiliate each other, and one ultimately kills the other. Again, there’s no direct statement about Religion and Business. But the entire film is designed in a way as to imply a confrontation between the two. It’s up to us, the viewers, to actively figure out what we think that implication means. To do that, we have to look for evidence within the movie, build up a hypothesis, find evidence that supports that hypothesis, then talk about it with other people.
Both are tools. One isn’t necessarily better than another. But using one over the other creates a very different viewing experience. Like Steven Spielberg relies heavily on direct statement. You don’t watch Schindler’s List and miss what it’s about. Where Stanley Kubrick relies heavily on implication. You can watch 2001: a Spacey Odyssey two-thousand and one times and still not know what’s going on.
Direct statement films are great for people who just want to have a passive viewing experience. Implication heavy films are great for people who want to actively engage with the film and enjoy the puzzle-like experience of “solving” the movie.
Manchester-by-the-Sea is an implication-heavy film. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into the first scene.
Walking on the road
While walking on the road, after Patrick’s dad’s funeral, Lee tells Patrick about looking for a new apartment. He mentions he’s looking for one with an extra room, for a pull-out sofa or something. The implication is that it would be a second bedroom. To this, Patrick asks, “What for?” And here is the key moment.
At the question from Patrick’s, we see Lee shut his mouth. He goes from looking at the ground to giving a quick look at Patrick. His expression says, “Really? Are you really going to make me say it?” But Lee doesn’t know how to say it. It’s like the words are caught in his throat. We’ve seen him do this a thousand times throughout the movie. Social interaction has been his biggest failure. Being open and vulnerable has been more than difficult—at times it’s been impossible.
Instead of answering, Lee turns his head away. This is an act of disconnection, completely in line with what we’ve seen from Lee. Our expectation is that Lee, per usual, will shut down. Or get snappy.
Instead, Lee says, “So you can come visit some time.” And continues on to say that if Patrick wants to go to college in Boston, he could stay with Lee, or at least stay there if he wants to come look at colleges, etc.
We’ve just had two drastic changes with Lee’s character.
First is Lee’s social interaction. This is not something Lee would have said at any other point in the movie. He just would have acted socially awkward.
Second is how Lee regards his relationship with Patrick. Throughout the film, Lee had talked about Patrick living with him as though it were the worst thing in the world. He was inconsiderate about it. Gruff. Seemingly always about to have a panic attack about it. To the point where being Patrick’s guardian was so stressful that their family friend, George, finally caved and said he’d be Patrick’s guardian. So it’s kind of a big deal to go from “I can’t rationally accept the idea of you staying with me” to “I’m looking for apartments with an extra bedroom so you can visit me.”
The question viewers might have is, “Why? What’s changed for Lee?” It would be easier if Lee told us what was going on. “You know, I was thinking about this and this happened…and this happened…and now I feel better.” That’s the kind of speech you’d expect from a rom com. Or an episode of Sex in the City.
Instead, we have to actively figure out what’s going on that would cause Lee to change. To understand this, we have to first understand why Lee is the way he is.
Why Lee is the way Lee is
Lee’s problem wasn’t being Patrick’s guardian. His problem was that he accidentally caused a fire that killed his three children. His grief and guilt has rendered him a shell of a human. And we have evidence of this from the flashbacks.
In the flashbacks, we see Lee is a Chatty Cathy. Talking a lot. Joking a lot. He had a bunch of friends. He liked to drink and be annoying. He was sometimes an asshole. But he’s from Boston, what do you expect? Overall, he was a normal guy, who brought a lot of joy to people and some frustration. He meant well. To look at who he was and compare that to who he is in the film’s present time…it’s clear how much the death of his children has affected him. His grief and guilt caused him to pull a cop’s gun and try to shoot himself in the head. He begged them to let him do it.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that he’s left Manchester-by-the-Sea and that he doesn’t want to live there as Patrick’s guardian. There are too many memories. The guilt and grief act as a prison that locks him in the past, stops him from fully engaging with the present or thinking about the future. But beyond the idea of living once more in the place of his greatest shame and horror….is the fear of once again being responsible for someone.
Lee fears once more messing up and causing the death of someone he loves. If Patrick’s his responsibility…will he kill Patrick? This fear is reinforced near the film’s end when Lee wakes up, the living room full of smoke. He had fallen asleep while waiting for pasta to cook. The sauce had started to burn, setting off the fire alarm. That’s way too close to accidentally starting a fire that burns down the house and kills your kids. It’s after this that Lee goes to George’s and we see him convince George and George’s wife to adopt Patrick.
The arc of the movie
Lee had lived in Boston for all these years and maintained very minimal contact with anyone from Manchester-by-the-Sea. This is a protective measure. A way for Lee to distance himself from his pain and fear and self-hatred. And also a way to “protect” the people he loves from himself (since he feels he’s no good).
The film’s narrative forces Lee to Manchester-by-the-Sea. Anchors him there. Which allows for all sorts of cathartic encounters. He speaks with his ex-wife and despite it not being a remarkable conversation, it’s a step towards solace. He has to act like a father for Patrick, something he doesn’t want to do but must do—he’s responsible for someone other than himself for the first time in a long time. He has the love of George. In so many little ways, Lee’s humanity is hammered back into him by the people he’s avoided.
But grief and guilt don’t vanish so easily. So the ending isn’t the overly cathartic moment we’d see in a Disney movie. Lee doesn’t fill the hole in his soul and return to being the joking, happy guy he had been. Though it seems as though those aspects of his personality may be re-emerging. That the present doesn’t feel like purgatory. That the future doesn’t seem like only Hell awaits. That there might yet be some good to find in life. That’s why the final scene on the boat is important.
Fishing on the boat
Lee and Patrick fishing on the boat echoes the opening scene when Lee was still a normal, happy person. When his brother was still alive. When Patrick was just a kid. The boat had been a happy place for them. Yet for so much of the movie, the boat had been broken down, acting as a symbol for Lee himself. Now it’s running again, and Patrick and Lee can fish together once more. And that’s where we leave them. The implication here is that even though this is the film’s end, it’s a new beginning for both Lee and Patrick.
Will Lee ever re-marry and have more kids? We can’t know for sure. But what we do know is that Lee is finally on a path to calm the fire forever burning in his soul. That means that Manchester by the Sea gives the hope that maybe, just maybe, over time, whatever ails us can be overcome. That no pain is eternal.