Manchester by the Sea January 28, 2017
In watching Kenneth Lonergan’s dejected, sad-funny Manchester by the Sea (2016) was I reminded of Marianne Faithfull’s “Guilt,” a 1979 torch song in which the singer, rasping and disheartened, wonders aloud why she feels so much regret and shame when she’s never necessarily done anything wrong in her life. She’s never stolen from the poor and she’s never lied to her lover. She’s made mistakes in her 33 years, sure, but she’s never purposely caused harm. And if she has, she’s apologized and tried to move on with her best foot forward. But “Guilt,” nonetheless, never reaches catharsis, dedicating its five minutes and 13 seconds to exploring the psychological strains that come with unrelenting sadness. It’s an ode to the people who feel sorry simply for existing.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is such a person. Melancholy doesn’t caress his face with the softness of a summer breeze; it slams it with sharp, knockabout gusts, reminding him with unremitting fury that he does not, in fact, deserve to be happy. Living alone in an unimpressive apartment in Quincy, Massachusetts, he spends his days working as a janitor and spends his nights in bars drinking and picking fights. God knows when he smiled last, and God knows the last time he laughed and didn’t immediately have the sensation overtaken by his crippling hatred of himself.
There’s a reason why such unbearable anguish rumbles in Lee’s swollen eyes, and that reason, as revealed later in the film, is decidedly horrific – in no doubt is the kind of pain he feels the sort you cannot recover from. He knows this, and he doesn’t dare try to remove himself from his despair. He punishes himself by refusing emotional connections and relationships. He’s incapable of making small talk, of putting on a nice face for the sake of someone else’s comfort. That he chooses to live with himself is heroic in and of itself.
Lee’s forced to crawl out of his pit of self-pity, though, when he gets word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack. And it only takes the length of the drive from Quincy to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea for Lee to discover that Joe, only 45, has been pronounced dead. Lee’s then tasked with making funeral proceedings and with watching over Joe’s house and teenage son Patrick (a hilarious Lucas Hedges).
The man would prefer to move on from the situation quickly and painlessly and return back home to his life of nothingness. But all is delayed by the truth that Joe cannot be buried until spring (the harsh winter cold of the East Coast makes it impossible to dig any graves) and by the revelation that the latter named Lee as Patrick’s guardian in his will. Suddenly, Lee is no longer allowed to live a life that’s essentially a slave to his misery. Selfish actions must be replaced by selflessness, by compassion.
But while we’d expect Manchester by the Sea (fundamentally a family drama which likes naturalism more than weepy saccharinity) to reward us with a silken, teary-eyed happy ending that proves that time, and the right people, really and truly can heal all wounds, writer/director Lonergan, by the last act, assures us that we’re not watching a story about recovery. We are, instead, given an inside look into the life of a man who will eternally be punished by an everyday mistake that had nightmarish repercussions – he’ll live unhappily, and he’ll die unhappily. We’re merely seeing what that sorrow looks like during a particularly hard time in his life.
Lonergan, however, isn’t content drowning Manchester by the Sea in the same heartache that its protagonist wears like an oversized sweater. Though we keep a subtle destitution in our pockets for the entirety of the film’s length, especially after it’s explained why Lee is so sad all the time, one can see the movie as a supremely dry tragicomedy, the type of tragicomedy that can find the humor in even the most depressing of moments and vice versa.
A scene that sees a woman in a gurney being lifted into an ambulance is quietly made into slapstick by the ineptitude of the paramedics, who bungle their every attempt at transportation. Another sequence, spotlighting a somber walk from a funeral parlor to a car, is turned into a screwball routine after the exact location of the car becomes an enigma and a pissy search ensues. Even a nervous breakdown becomes farcical only because the way it comes to be is so unexpected and because the reactions to it are so clumsy.
Such is because Lonergan recognizes that his characters think and feel with the messiness of the general population and not of cinematic creations. It’s a film marked by wistfulness. But unlike, say, Three Colors: Blue (1993), the perpetually down-and-out arthouse masterpiece that studied the life of a young woman (Juliette Binoche) recouping from a car crash that killed her husband and child, it isn’t only wistful. It’s also an advocate for the Life is Funny sentiment and epitomizes the fact that the human experience can never solely be characterized by a single emotion. Life is a comedy in which everyone’s dealings with their crises contain moments of ticklishness simply because no one is perfect at grieving, reacting, or healing.
That notion is most prominent in scenes accentuating the relationship between Lee and Patrick, a pair that evidently drifted apart following the former’s decision to halt all potential for an emotional kinship. Patrick, unlike the judgmental locals who snottily spit on Lee’s name whenever he makes an appearance, doesn’t much care about his uncle’s tainted past. What he cares about is getting rides between his girlfriends’ (Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov) houses, to hockey practice, and to band rehearsal, and his challenging of Lee’s gloomy persona is a joy to behold purely because it forces the latter to stop wallowing in his misery. By the film’s end has Lonergan conjured a playful, poignant relationship, and the final shot solidifies just how much we come to care about these characters and how much we invest ourselves in their relationship.
Hedges, barely legal, introduces himself as an actor to watch, but the performers who leave us reeling the most are Affleck and Michelle Williams (who plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi).
Over the course of his career, Affleck has mostly undergone comedic turns that portray him as a skinny weasel with a bad habit of being accidentally funny, only recently proving his range as a serious actor to be reckoned with (2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2013 projects Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Out of the Furnace standing as shining examples). In Manchester by the Sea he presents himself not only as an artiste capable of carrying a film but also as a gifted Daniel Day-Lewis type who’s mastered the art of the embodiment. He makes Lee’s torment so vivid we can practically reach out and grab it. When he tells a character that there’s “nothing there” in reference to his emotional state, we believe him – he cannot, and will not, recover. Affleck encapsulates that heartbreaking self-condemnation magnificently.
Williams, having only taken on two roles in the time since her notable 2010-11 hot streak (which included Oscar nominated turns in Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn), has the least amount of screen time among the big-named ensemble and yet still manages to move us the most. In almost every scene she’s in are we desperate to crack her open. We know how Lee is grappling with the tragedies of his past, but Randi’s state of mind isn’t so clear. But in the film’s best scene, in which she and Lee have their first real conversation in nearly a decade, it's revealed that she’s only masking her hurt in her new domestic life (she’s gotten married and had a child) because she doesn’t have the energy to flounder in it. But even that masking doesn’t ease her guilt. Williams, able to make such a small role sing with moaning remorse, has a very good chance of taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Manchester by the Sea accomplishes what few films can, portraying grief, fatherhood, and forgiveness (whether that be self-forgiveness or otherwise) with substantial sympathy. This is one of the best movies of 2016, and certainly among the finest films of the decade. A must. A