Manchester by the Sea
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Casey Affleck (Lee)
Michelle Williams (Randi)
Kyle Chandler (Joe)
Lucas Hedges (Patrick)
C. J. Wilson (George)
A plot about the walking wounded is an indie staple, and Manchester by the Sea wears no external garb beyond the stereotype. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) isn’t an Iraq War vet or a widower whose dead wife has left him bereft. At first we don’t know why he’s wounded—the opening scenes are of a taciturn, truculent janitor in a small apartment building in Quincy, outside Boston. Lee is thirty-something, scruffy, eyes averted, and armed with a huge chip on his shoulder that causes him to lash out at a bitchy tenant with a defiant lack of remorse. In his psyche the tarp is nailed down at all four corners unless a gust of wind flaps one up.
But there are a few signs that this isn’t going to just be Indie Template 101a. Affleck, who up to now has been a lightweight actor, a dinghy in the wake of Ben’s steamship, exhibits a depth of sorrow that feels more disturbing than we anticipate. There is also dark comedy in the way he deals with the tenants, a streak that will run throughout what is essentially a horrifying, even unspeakable setup. Eventually we discover that Lee has sought refuge in the dregs of existence because his entire self has been shattered by guilt, in fact by an event the audience can hardly bear to witness. One night in the past he was having a regular drunken get-together with his buddies, playing ping pong in the basement as a pretext for loudmouth wrangling—the kind of thing movies depict as standard fare for working-class Irish Catholics.
His long-suffering wife Randi (Michelle Williams) storms downstairs, irritated that their young children might wake up, and voices a simple, caustic message: Get these dumb fucks outta my house. I mean it! Chastened but still too drunk and stirred up to go to bed, Lee wanders off for supplies at a corner grocery. When he returns, we hear sirens and see the glow of flames. Lee rushes down the street in a panic, and at the sight of a burning house silhouetted against the New England winter sky, his world collapses with the inescapable force of a black hole. Lee had lit a fire in the fireplace and forgotten to put up the screen. Something happened—a log rolled out onto the floor, presumably—and in the conflagration only Randi survives. Their children die in the fire, leaving Lee to a bleak wandering life, condemned by the town folk of Manchester and by his own soul-killing guilt.
I’ve put this down with touches of melodrama because the framework set up by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, long a celebrated figure as an off-Broadway playwright (perhaps the most significant one since the young, explosive Sam Shephard), is overtly melodramatic. As a genre, melodrama belongs in the lower precincts of literature, but who’s to argue with Hugo, Balzac, and Dickens? The twist here is that Lee plays both victim and villain, turning the melodrama into an astute psychological study that has no equal in this year’s movie releases and must be ranked, for subtlety, compassion, and gripping portrayals, with Todd Haynes’s Carol, the most extraordinary film of last year.
At the very least Lonergan has revived his checkered film career—he directed both the indie hit, You Can Count on Me (2000) and the Hollywood flop Margaret (2010). Back from exile, rather like Terence Malick with Tree of Life, Lonergan rises in the full glory of his talent. Not incidentally, Casey Affleck rises to the rank of an estimable, serious actor.
The action in Manchester by the Sea revolves around a legal inconvenience. Lee’s older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies of a heart attack. Knowing in advance that his heart is diseased, Joe carefully plots the future in his will, making Lee the guardian of his sixteen-year-old son Patrick (the superbly natural Lucas Hedges). When Lee returns to Manchester to make funeral arrangements, he is astounded to find out the provisions of the will, and at first we tend to feel the same way. Presumably Joe, the responsible elder brother who captained the family fishing boat, knows that Lee is a hollowed-out wreck after the fire. It takes a long time to see how with infinite care, Lonergan is weaving a skein of loving compassion around Lee—but whether Joe acts out of love, as a way to save Lee, or simply by circumstance, because Patrick’s mother has run off, we never discover. One of the beauties of Lonergan’s scheme (and this is similar to Carol) is that the deepest transformations are accomplished almost sub rosa, as life does little more than follow its everyday course.
In this case, life sentences Lee to be the bewildered, exasperated father figure in Patrick’s life, a teenage round of girls, a basement band, hockey, and buds loafing on the couch. My Three Sons couldn’t be blander. Lee does his duty as chauffeur and caretaker, feeling nothing inside, while Patrick exhibits the thoughtless rebel behavior of a younger Lee, meanwhile protecting his grief over Joe’s death behind adolescent male defenses. Whether he even realizes that Uncle Lee is held to be a monster by the whole town isn’t told. We just see two stubbornly alienated males reacting to each other. Lonergan, who clearly has been there, injects humor, mostly of the ghastly kind, into the mix. At one point Lee is staring at the gun collection Joe left behind, and Patrick says, “Who are you going to shoot, you or me?” He’s being a smart-ass, but we laugh and feel anxious at the same time.
Although Manchester by the Sea has been outfitted with plenty of subtext, as we’re trained to call it, Lonergan has made a very Catholic film. These are salt-of-the-earth Trump people clinging to old forms that they know are hollow but which are vestiges of a sustaining spiritual culture. I think Lonergan sees his characters with mature compassion. He doesn’t editorialize their religion but gives it to us straight, as a blend of what Sean O’Casey does in his play, The Plough and the Stars, and TV’s Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Plough‘s worm’s-eye view of the Easter Uprising in Dublin was scandalous because the mythic idealism of the Irish Revolution (the stars, as it were) lives cheek-to-jowl with a Falstaffian earthiness, bawdiness, and selfish roguery (the plough).
This high-and-low vision of human nature is Shakespearean if you come from the Anglo tradition, but it’s broadly a Middle Ages worldview: Manchester by the Sea is as much Breughel as Shakespeare. In one scene, before the calamity of the fire, a roguish Lee comes home from a day on the fishing boat, laughing and hugging his kids, listening to Randi complain about the cold that has put her in bed. But Lee has designs, and he starts to roll on top of her as he undresses, making it clear that he’s going to get his wheedling erotic way. She laughs, pushes him off, sniffles, and relents, all at the same time. The two of them might as well reside in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The updating hasn’t changed human nature.
Lonergan told Charlie Rose that he likes to center his narratives on ordinary people overwhelmed by a crushing life event and how they behave in the face of it. His quintessential hero is Mark Ruffalo, who appeared in both of Lonergan’s early films (and got almost as huge a career boost from You Can Count on Me as Casey Affleck is getting now). Affleck gives a performance that feels very Ruffalo-ish. These are shambolic men we find easy to love and empathize with, descendants of the two Tyrone brothers in Long Day’s Journey into Night, made tragic by “life.” It’s painful to watch Lee receive the news that Joe has died before Lee got to the hospital; as doctor, nurse, and family friends try to sympathize, he blurts out “Fuck it.” He manages to hug Joe in the hospital morgue and give him a parting kiss, but already in flashback the gnawing images of guilt spring into his mind.
Everything mundane, but the building-up of the force of destiny will be as pitiless as in Verdi. This is life dramatized and soaked through with 19th-century naturalism in the style of Zola, Stephen Crane, and later Dreiser, O’Neill, and Arthur Miller, where an inexorable something in the universe has been set up to demand of us more than we can give, comprehend, or suffer.
The women in the film are also out of the Middle Ages. Hardly Madonnas, the shrewish wives in the family and Patrick’s lusty girlfriends—he has two, between which he either is having sex or says, “I’m working on it”—are the best the sacred archetype can manage. Mistress Quickly and Dolly Tearsheet are the low literary models. Lonergan makes Randi the real survivor, intent on trudging through the fog of grief. She has moved on after divorcing Lee, finding a new husband and having a baby. Whatever existential lumps you take, somebody has to change the nappies.
Lee’s janitorial drudgery was penitential, and I think at the end his penance is over and has done what it can. Which isn’t much. After watching two hours of combative wrangling between Lee and Patrick, a heartbreaking resolution arrives. Lee sits with bowed head at the table across from Patrick and says, “I can’t beat it.” “It” is blurry, combining his demons, his grief and the wound it implanted, and the town’s rejection of him. Arrangements are made for Patrick to be adopted by the kind fisherman who manned Joe’s boat, and Lee will return to Boston.
As narrative closure, this is satisfying. Lee has found a way for his nephew to stay at home where he belongs. (On the hockey rink early in the film, Patrick is brutally physical and foul-mouthed. We see that he is on track to wind up the reckless brawler that Lee was, and it will still be touch-and-go whether he turns out okay.) The spark of hope, however, doesn’t lie with how the plot resolves—the last, optimistic image shows Lee and Patrick fishing off the back of the boat—but in the soul journey we take with Lee, drawn back into life by the slenderest of threads. In this setting, the thread feels like spiritual redemption, even if in reality it’s much less.
Writers don’t typically make good movie directors, tending to tell the story through literary means without visual correlates. But Lonergan’s imagery is beyond the norm. The camera is used objectively but with abrupt psychological punctuations whenever a shot gives us Lee’s point of view. Unforgettable is Lee standing at the wreckage of the house he accidentally burned to the ground, watching as firemen emerge from the rubble with Lee’s children in black body bags. Just as heart-stopping is the mundane wide shot of the police station interior as Lee is leaving it that same night. Suddenly he grabs an officer’s pistol from its holster, and the mundane explodes into a riot of action as the cops scramble to keep him from killing himself.
The plainness of the movie’s visual style suits the rawness of the story. Nothing is decorated or adorned. In wide shots we take in the gray seaside working-class town of Manchester, allowing us to make our own assessment of how much its dreariness is in contrast to the sea’s image of endless Nature. There are few establishing shots to begin each scene, which keeps our focus on character and emotion—we only see enough of the town to amplify the creatures who inhabit it.
There is one visual set piece, the funeral service for Joe, set in the parish church. Done in slow motion in mid-shots with overlapping bodies and faces, the scene is silent, as a correlate for Lee’s numbness. The sequence ends with a shot of Lee and Patrick sitting stiffly in a pew when suddenly the buzz of Patrick’s cellphone comically undermines the ethereal music, “He shall feed his flock” from Handel’s Messiah. (As nearly flawless as the film is, some of the music is too on the nose or, more frequently, too obviously ironic—we don’t need to be nudged in the ribs this much.)
Critics have commented on how abruptly the director cuts from the present to flashbacks in Lee’s memory. The first flashback jump cuts from Joe’s corpse laid out in the morgue. As Lee gazes down on it, his mind leaps to Joe sitting up in a hospital bed on the day he first learns he has congestive heart failure and therefore only a limited time to live. Flashbacks make past time present, just as memory does, and Lee’s agony is caused by his inability to keep the past from infecting the present. But it would be an exaggeration to claim that Lonergan is destabilizing the timeline in some radical way. He uses these flashbacks as reveals in his storytelling, accumulating evidence for why Lee is so damaged. To a great extent the flashbacks also act as Lee’s conscience. He views the parallels—threats, blunders, looming conflicts—in young Patrick’s life as echoes of his own wasted youth. These glimpses help to ground Lee’s transformation in the end as a parental figure who can finally bear to accept and be accepted back into his family.
Finally, what gives Manchester by the Sea its weight and value is how it extends the Americanness of American cinema, going back to D.W. Griffith and John Ford’s deliberate mythic striving. In the best films today, myths and ideals are torn down, as in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. (I reviewed both for New York Arts.) Like them, Manchester studies an outcast in a once-promised land. The inarticulate blue-collar worker has served every writer who rose up socially to become an O’Neill or Miller, but those two writers tended to hang their dramas on a universal character like Willy Loman. Their plays are gritty and metaphysical at the same time. Lee, however, is only fractionally imaginary and not remotely metaphysical. The bulk of him is the product of Lonergan’s pitch-perfect ear for Manchester’s tightly bound social world.
Nothing exemplifies this like the portmanteau word “fuck,” a staple of Scorsese’s lowlifes and a cliché of how proles speak in the movies. Fuck! might telegraph murderous fury or how a man feels when he first sets eyes on his newborn baby. Manchester by the Sea has more inflections of “fuck it” than you can imagine. It’s what Lee and his friends say to express anything and everything: I’m done, Get lost, Stop it, already, I don’t get it, How incredible, Leave me alone, I don’t care, You’re out of your mind, What’s going on anyway?—and those are only the beginning. Lonergan relies on us, the audience, to catch what he’s throwing at us in the flat argot of the film.
The scene where Lee runs into his ex-wife Randi, who is out strolling the new baby she’s had with her second husband, is a bleak marvel of this language. On the surface, each of them says the simplest kinds of things—Let’s have lunch, You mean you and me? etc.—in order to get past the awkwardness of the situation. Lee wants to back out so that he can preserve his isolation, while Randi, who is the only person on earth who shares their tragedy, wants to break through.
As a writerly setup, it’s a juicy bit, skirting the danger of being manipulative. Marlon Brando’s mumbling inarticulacy in the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech in On the Waterfront comes easily to mind. Neither it nor the Manchester scene is manipulative, however, because we all know what it feels like when a cri de coeur demands to be released and words, which are our only resort, block the way. Lee can’t speak; Randi can’t not. Trapped in that impasse, they extract heartrending pathos, chiefly because of the collision of two totally believable actors reaching deep. (As a friend commented to me, Williams deserves the Oscar just for this one scene. I keep wondering how she and Affleck managed to get through multiple takes–the changing camera angles indicate that they had to).
Randi wants to convey her remorse about accusing Lee of causing the fire that killed their children, and when he won’t engage, she cries, “I love you.” Raw emotion is all she has in order to bring Lee back to life, because she still deeply cares about him. The key line in the scene is Randi saying desperately, “You can’t die.” The movie is so naturalistic that there’s no single turning point, but for me this was the moment when Lee’s shell cracks, despite his attempts to place himself apart from human contact.
Reviews of the film routinely talk about how some wounds can never be healed or faced. I think the movie is about the opposite. In some mysterious way—through time, the hidden power of healing, the spark of love between Patrick and Lee, the working of tiny outside influences, and the compassion of women–Lee does flicker back to life. It’s done subtly, for example, in the long shot very near the end where he and Patrick toss a ball and one of them mutters, “Good catch.” Healing must penetrate the blurring of feelings, of life as it unfolds, which the movie deeply respects. So many indie films are about unresolved ambivalence, but in a hokey indie way that’s become standard issue. Lonergan finds the means to do something that’s memorable and moving with inarticulacy. His movie expresses poignantly everyone’s inability to meet life’s treacherous uncertainty.