Minimal Care in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea”
By Alicia Mireles ChristoffJanuary 15, 2017
The film derives its considerable emotional power from its slow and skillful (albeit manipulative) revelation of these originary losses, particularly the gut-wrenching way in which Lee lost his family and has ended up where we find him at the movie’s start: alone, shut down, living not in his small North Shore hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, but in a basement apartment on the outskirts of Boston, where he works doing maintenance. This is where we see him in the movie’s opening: in his silent daily grind of shoveling snow and taking out trash. Lee’s insistence that he can’t be Patrick’s legal guardian takes on new significance as his earlier tragedy unfolds in a series of flashbacks. In a sequence that cuts between the scene in the lawyer’s office, scenes from Lee’s former home life in Manchester, and shots of the wintry harbor and snow-blown sea — all set over the funereal strains of Albinoni’s “Adagio for Strings and Organ in G minor” — we learn, devastatingly, that Lee hasn’t been an adequate guardian to his own young children. All three of them, two daughters and a baby son, died years before in a house fire that, in a combination of drunken negligence and a perfectly ordinary mistake, Lee was responsible for starting. His wife Randi (Michelle Williams) survived the fire, but the tragedy and its aftermath have torn them apart.
Can Lee ever get over a loss of this magnitude, the film asks? In interviews, Lonergan has pressed this point, explaining that there are some “bad things” we never come back from, some forms of suffering that, as much as we’d like them to, do not end in recovery or redemption. What if experience doesn’t make us stronger, smarter, or better-equipped, but rather unfits us for the life that follows? Such is the most pronounced meditation of the film, and it indeed manages to move us. Life is suffering shot through with moments of grace, which the film measures in the heavenly chorales of its soundtrack, in quiet unpeopled shots of town and sea, and the piercing humor of men’s banter even in the worst of circumstances. And yet, more powerful than the film’s overt emphasis on loss is its subtler meditation on care — its exploration of the ways Lee will and will not be able to care for Patrick, and for Randi, and for himself.
Manchester by the Sea may pass itself off as a story of irrecoverable loss and (more critically) as the story of the losses and pleasures inherent to masculine sociality, but the film also asks us to recognize it as something more specific: not the story of masculinity tout court, but — as the film’s title, setting, and the pronounced Bay State accents of its characters all strongly denote — as a consideration of straight, white, middle-class masculinity in particular. Manchester by the Sea centers on white male guilt: its power and its myopia, its uselessness and its destructiveness. And yet it remains fundamentally unclear to me how much writer and director Kenneth Lonergan knows this about his own film.
Men, as they are depicted in the film (white middle-class men, that is), have caused damage, but they can’t figure out how responsible they are for it, and they certainly don’t know how to fix it. Their guilt is real, but it is unspeakable and implacable. For Lee, it surfaces in dreams, in his construction of a working-class identity for himself as an enacted fantasy of self-punishment, in his careful handling of three five-inch-by-seven-inch photographs of his children in identical store-bought frames (we only see their black-velveted backs, lined up first on his dresser in Quincy and then on his bedside table in Manchester), and in the unprovoked bar fights he starts up, ostensibly to map his self-hatred onto others. That this aggression is rendered as heart-breaking, as a pitiable manifestation of Lee’s longing to feel and to make contact, is an indicator of what is most politically troubling about the film: that it seems to put so much labor — its own and the viewer’s emotional labor, too — into the service of redeeming white male rage, repression, and fragility.
Perhaps it seems like a familiar epiphany (or an easy critique) to point out that a mainstream Hollywood film takes white male experience as neutral and universal, unquestioningly representing Lee’s story as the story of loss itself. But this premise has gone so unchallenged in critical responses to Manchester by the Sea that it feels urgent to point it out here. A. O. Scott’s New York Times review is one of the few major reviews to take on the racial politics of the film, arguing that, despite appearances and its backing by the “Damon-Affleck industrial complex,” Manchester by the Sea is not just another blue-collar Boston movie. “Mr. Lonergan,” Scott writes, “is too astute about the textures of American life to assume that the racial and class identities of his characters are incidental or without larger significance.” The film’s opening scenes support this reading, clearly foregrounding race and class by showing us Lee’s interactions with a series of tenants whose various lives and attitudes toward their apartment building’s handyman are clearly stressed: a man identified in the credits as Mr. Martinez questions Lee’s professional opinion about his toilet; an African-American woman in her 30s whispers to a friend on the phone that she has a crush on her janitor; an older Jewish woman complains about having to attend a boring bat mitzvah; a middle-aged white woman rudely acts as if her leaking shower is Lee’s fault, even as she excitedly accuses him of trying to seduce her.
But the characters of color disappear once we leave Boston for all-white Manchester. (The exception that proves this rule is Joe’s female Asian-American doctor, whose very easy name, Dr. Bethany, is repeatedly mispronounced.) And it’s hard not to see questions of race and class fading too. Have the characters of color been called in to merely mark Lee’s fall from grace and privilege? Others who have considered the race and class politics of Manchester have been quicker to call a spade a spade. Samuel L. Jackson, for instance, recently received press for stating the simple truth that Manchester “is not an inclusive film.” Not only can you count the characters of color in the film on one hand, but their roles in the “larger” drama of Lee’s life are dubious.
Even if we watch and think generously, giving the film credit for some degree of deliberateness in its representation of white male experience not as neutral but as foregrounded, what exactly does it say about it? What does it get us to see or feel differently? The film ultimately seems to say that for guilt of this kind, there is nothing to be done. “Daddy, don’t you see we’re burning?” Lee’s small daughter asks in a dream that is a direct citation from The Interpretation of Dreams. “No honey, you’re not,” he says gently. Unlike the father in Freud’s classic study, in his dreams, Lee does not repair his wrongdoings; instead he wants to believe they never happened.
The night of the fire, Lee was partying with his friends in the basement, and they were so rowdy and drunk that Randi had to come downstairs to get them in line and out of the house. “She can’t talk to us like that,” Lee jokes as soon as she goes back upstairs. “She’ll apologize later.” And the crazy part is that she does. In the film’s most affecting (and wonderfully acted) scene, Lee and Randi run into each other on the street in Manchester. She is pushing a stroller that carries her newborn son. She asks if they can have lunch together sometime. The message is clear: not only is she capable of moving on, she is capable of helping Lee to move on too, if he will have it. But of course he won’t, or he can’t. Outrageously, she apologizes to him: “I should burn in hell for the things I said to you,” she cries, sobbing so hard she can scarcely get the words out. “Honey,” she says, resorting to an older register, to their older relation — anything to make contact. “You can’t just die.” But he does die to her, because he can. “There’s nothing there,” he says, and walks away — another version of what he’ll later say to Patrick about having to leave Manchester: “I can’t beat it.”
Manchester by the Sea is a film in which women say “I’m sorry” and men say nothing. This dynamic extends to Patrick and his mother Elise, an alcoholic in recovery played by Gretchen Mol. Men say “shut up” to each other as they affectionately tease one another and goof around, or they say “my father died when I was young, too” (as in Patrick’s perfunctorily sympathetic hockey coach, or the grandfatherly man who chats with Lee while he repairs his furnace). I find this hard to take, and I’m not sure I can believe that the film problematizes these gender dynamics. Try as I might, I cannot feel as triumphantly happy for Patrick as the film would like me to when he finally, with a little help from Uncle Lee, gets to have sex with girlfriend number two (the blonde one, Sandy, not “the dark-haired one,” Silvie). And I can’t, in light of the disturbing sexual harassment allegations against Casey Affleck, really laugh at the opening vignettes in which three women (the two tenants as well as a woman at the bar) and, more ambiguously, two gay men (also at the bar — after which he beats them up) make unwelcome sexual advances on Lee, as if to reverse the real-life scenario and make a case for Affleck as utterly irresistible.
Anthony Lane writes that although “a synopsis of the plot does sound like a parody of a downer,” its execution is strong enough to make it feel real. While I can certainly see and experience the film in this way, I can’t help but have a concurrent feeling of disappointment and distance. Manchester by the Sea feels like a parody of a Lonergan film, a more palatable and Oscar-friendly version of what he usually does so well. It shares with his previous films, You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), many aspects of what makes them so special: their realism, the appealing ordinariness of their pacing, the uneven length of scenes and their unexpected shock cuts, their humor, their powerful soundscapes, their depictions of the absurd in the tragic, and their hyper-articulate dialogue, at once stylized and so much realer to life than what we’re accustomed to hearing in movies. But somehow the magic and unpredictability of those films is muted here, despite its big emotional pulls.
Rather than following characters through the day-to-day transactions of life after tragedy as we do in these earlier films, Manchester interrupts this quotidian flow with its portentous flashback structure. Granted, these flashbacks are interestingly integrated, with a welcome lack of pomp and a stately visual consistency with the rest of the film (beautifully shot as it is by Jody Lee Lipes, with washes of natural gray light and a sharp delineation of actors in the middle-distance, letting the background fall out of focus). But the flashbacks not only diminish our sense of the unexpected rhythms of Lonergan’s filmmaking, they also place the story too squarely within the mind of Lee Chandler. These memories, we are made to see, belong to him. The associations that link the past and the present are controlled by his distant stares out over the ocean. This structure negates two elements central to the understated beauty and uniqueness of Lonergan’s earlier films: their strong female leads (expertly played by Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me and by Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, and Jeannie Berlin in Margaret) and their resolute exteriority — instead of trying to enter into characters’ minds, those films showed us just how much we could learn about people strictly from the way they speak and interact with others. Indeed, with its tight focus on Lee rather than a wide cast of characters and its precisely timed revelation of tragedies, Manchester by the Sea loses the pleasing sprawl of Lonergan’s earlier works.
The persistence of the mundane within the tragic is overplayed here too. We’re hit over the head with it in a nurse’s inability to find Joe’s personal items to return to Lee (“Where’s Joe’s belongings? The plastic bag, it was sitting right there”), with medics unable to get a gurney’s legs to fold to wheel it into the ambulance, and with Patrick’s phone vibrating noisily at his father’s funeral. These moments feel cheap, as does Lonergan’s cameo in the film. While in the earlier films Lonergan cleverly casts himself in small roles as a middle-aged man offering hapless but earnest advice (a priest in You Can Count On Me, Lisa’s struggling screenwriter father in Margaret), here he showboats in a bright blue down coat: “Great parenting!” he shouts at Lee as an obnoxious stranger passing on the sidewalk.
I could trust Lonergan more watching his earlier films. While Margaret, like Manchester by the Sea, focuses on a very specific ethnic and socio-economic group and region — privileged Jewish people on the Upper West Side — it built important questions of the politics of representation into its very fabric. Layering Manhattan high school student Lisa Cohen’s tragedy (she helps to cause an accident in which a bus hits and kills a woman crossing the street) against the large-scale tragedy of 9/11 and its ensuing “wars on terror,” the film deliberately frames the question of how the personal and the world-historical intersect. It asked (even if it did not answer) how much one young woman’s suffering can and should matter to us, given not only “the fact of frequency” — the notion that every person Lisa passes on the street is suffering their own tragedy too, which Lonergan nods to by allowing us to overhear snatches of their conversations — but also given that, in our culture, certain lives are deemed important while others are relegated to the wayside or rendered disposable. (Lisa hears reports of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on the radio, but turns up the volume simply to drown out the sound of her mother’s conversation on the phone.) I simply don’t see signs of Lonergan holding these kinds of questions in mind in Manchester by the Sea. Rather than critiquing white male privilege, the film seems merely to highlight the experience of pain it entails — not just painting, but possibly applauding men in all of their stoicism, their mystery, their silent strength.
The most redeeming quality of the film is seeing the way Lee and Patrick interact. Granted they can both be difficult; they can be sarcastic; but they address each other with such genuine goodwill and basic kindness that it is almost heart-breaking to see. I’m reminded of something D. W. Winnicott once wrote about a family in which a child was acting out suicidal fantasies and the mother had recently been hospitalized for a severe bout of depression. Rather than pathologizing them, he says, “There must be a great deal of strength in such a family.” That’s how I feel watching Lee and Patrick. Patrick automatically starts asking Uncle Lee for permission to have friends over or to order pizza in the way he would have asked his father. Lee talks to Patrick honestly and directly. Trying to decide whether he wants to see his father’s body in the morgue, Patrick asks what he looks like. “He looks like he’s dead,” Lee answers. But he’s not just being a smart-ass. He’s really trying to explain. “He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping. But he doesn’t look gross either. Maybe you don’t want that image in your memory — that’s up to you.”
The film is framing a question about care that was vital to Lonergan’s first film, You Can Count On Me, about how much an older sister, Sammy (Laura Linney), can rely on her screw-up younger brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), in their adult lives. The answer is both not much and a great deal. “Remember what we used to say when we were kids?” Terry asks, about to leave Sammy’s life again after returning to the family home for a few important weeks. He’s referring to the film’s title (which, happily, never actually gets said in the film). And it’s true and it’s not true. He’s going away; he may not be accessible; Sammy doesn’t know when she’ll get to see him again. She can’t necessarily call on him for help when she needs him. But in a deeper way, he is there for her, holding her steadily in mind despite their separation. Such is the care that Lee is capable of giving his nephew. He can’t stay in Manchester; he can’t be his guardian; but it’s also true that Patrick can count on him and on the steadiness of their ways of being together. The film defines the most minimal requirements for care and demonstrates just how important even they can be. It’s a beautiful and moving meditation. But is it enough to sustain us? Is it enough to sustain a film?
A few months ago, I may have thought it was. But just as the recent presidential election has utterly transformed our political landscape, it changes our criticism and consumption of culture, too. Lonergan could not have predicted these results, and in a sense, the timing of his film’s release is simply unfortunate. Nevertheless, watching the film now, as Trump busily assembles a cabinet, is not the same as it would have been watching it before the election, and that is something to emphasize rather than ignore. In her review of the film, Francine Prose highlights Lonergan’s masterful ability to elicit sympathy for complex characters, and finds in his “great patience and affection for his subjects” a political tool: if only she could feel this compassion, she laments, for men shouting obscenities at Trump rallies, who, after all, may have much in common with Lee Chandler. But in the wake of the election, in the wake of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, in the wake of a nightmarish summer that made so graphically clear the ongoing and horrific police violence against people of color, which continues to go unpunished today, Lonergan’s lesson in grief and compassion is not the lesson we most urgently need. Lee Chandler and the Lee Chandlers of the world (a collapse of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction that, in its hyper-realism, the film invites us to entertain) certainly deserve compassion. But I fear that there are many others in this country who, in the coming years, will need not only this compassion much more urgently, but also much more substantial forms of care.
Given how long the problems of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that are now bubbling over have been simmering, I can’t feel that a movie about white guilt or about minimal care is enough right now — not enough to sustain us, and not enough to merit so much critical praise. In the moment we’re living, it feels way too much like excuse-making. I want to trust that Lonergan, with all of the skill and creativity and power at his disposal, is capable of getting us to see and feel and think more: more capaciously, more urgently. It is not too much to hope for from such a sensitive and thoughtful filmmaker. And I really do think that, in his future films, we can count on him to do it.
Alicia Christoff is assistant professor of English at Amherst College, where she teaches courses on 19th-century British literature, critical theory, psychoanalysis, and contemporary fiction and creative non-fiction.
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