Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay. Kenneth Lonergan
Men and grief. While cinema has portrayed men struggling with grief many times it can often manifest itself in their search for immediate answers or release, avoiding pain by seeking vengeance, new relationships or re-asserting control. While this can be very genre-specific, often using grief as a device to ground the man’s actions in an emotional context, such depictions distinctly lack subtlety, sensitivity and vulnerability. It might also be said that dramas that deal explicitly with grief focus on the women, recent examples including John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole and Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea offers an honest insight into the difficulties men face not only in coping with grief, anger and healing, but in struggling with these together. While its premise appears to navigate familiar waters, the film defies sentimental conventions that demand easy resolution for its lead characters. A bittersweet experience that only slightly misstep in its desire to raise the humble drama to operatic proportions.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an apartment handy-man, misanthropic and prone to violent retaliation, receives a call that is brother (Kyle Chandler) is dying. Driving from Boston to his hometown Manchester-by-the-Sea, he arrives too late. Faced with the arduous task of sorting out his brother’s affairs, including the fate of their family fishing-boat, he is also tasked with guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Despite a clear affection between them, Patrick and Lee shift between sniping sarcasm and bitter anger as they both struggle to come to terms with their loss. Underlining this, Lee is faced with the harrowing tragedy in his past and desires to quickly escape its traumatic reminders, turn over responsibility for Patrick and resume his reclusive, unsatisfying exile. Lee is initially a Meursault-like figure, a constantly uncomfortable presence who presents as both unpredictable and irreconcilable. Still waters run deep, as the cliche goes, and in much of the early part of the film I wondered about his short-fuse, his hollowed eyes that look through people, his detachment- what could have caused this? For Lee, the specifics of his turmoil are slowly revealed when he returns to Manchester but Lonergan leaves the wider causes affecting the other hardy men more ambiguous. Is it intergenerational pain passed down through domestic abuse, alcoholism and dissatisfaction? Are the social forces of alienation and anomie at play here? It isn’t clear- but eventually I realised it didn’t need to be. The real issue Lonergan grapples with is both personal and emotional: whether there is room for anything other than crippling grief in life? Whether a man and a family can rebuild after a significant loss? If there is any healing in the film, it isn’t through a blithe ‘moving on’ but rather through emotional exposure and confronting that struggle within. Lonergan doesn’t allow his characters simple resolutions and doesn’t offer any platitudes about life and death, family and friends. We get a sense of where its going to go, but intriguingly Lonergan leaves us unsure whether the characters will actually get there.
Affleck and relative newcomer Hedges are absolutely terrific to watch in the uncle-nephew, surrogate father-son relationship. They bring equal humour and pathos to each role, with dominance by no means assured as Hedges continually and convincingly berates Affleck’s brooding, closed exterior. It is not easy to side with one or the other though the film desires its audience, parallel to the characters’ own struggle, to find compromise and mutuality. After the first few scenes, you believe wholeheartedly in their frictious relationship, engrossed as it grows and feel the steps forward and back are earned. Lee and Patrick felt alive through their nudging banter and their pain, as the film draws effortlessly from you laughter and silence, sometimes within mere moments of each other. At one point, when Patrick suffers an unexpected panic attack, finally allowing his long-held pain to emerge, he locks himself in his room. Lee bangs against the door and violently breaks in, shocking Patrick. The ensuing dialogue both underscores the growing concern that Lee has for Patrick while also allowing Patrick to point out, amusingly, how unnecessarily over-dramatic his uncle was being. “I’m calmer now, will you please just go away?” he asks exasperatedly. “No” Lee responds, being both intrusive and protective of his nephew. Lonergan’s writing and the actors’ performance is subtle and well-observed here, portraying a grieving process that never loses sight of its acute pain while avoiding melodrama or unrelenting bleakness. As such, the mundanely bureaucratic funeral arrangements and estate-sorting, Patrick’s youthful promiscuity and cringe-worthy adolescent band also balance the otherwise sombre proceedings and Lee’s barely contained antipathy.
The supporting cast are also brilliant in this, especially Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi (though she is barely featured and relegated next to the leads), C.J.Wilson as his long-trusted friend George and Joe Chandler as brother Kyle who build the ordinary, decent friends and family members trying to hold it together. The film is really at its best when Lonergan allows his actors to dictate the rhythm of the scene. However, Williams and Affleck’s confrontation, the one scene of significance for Williams, is overdone. In a film that carefully hones its emotion, the whimpering interruptions and breathiness, the heart wrenching declarations from Williams and Affleck respectively just felt too forced. While it was an integral scene, it lets down the otherwise naturalistic, affecting performances given elsewhere. Better are the quiet moments when Lee sits next to Patrick’s bed after his panic attack or when he leaves for Boston for the first time, standing awkwardly between his brother and the car. Nothing is really said, but so much can be felt and understood. The concern, tension and love feel genuine in these often sobering moments.
However, the film threatens to descend into almost operatic melodrama which nullifies emotional impact, created through the film’s cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes. Smothering several significant moments in hackneyed classical music just feels indulgent and uninspired. The film’s most traumatic sequence, flashing between Lee’s past and present, has Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor played in full over it, its familiarity robbing the sequence of its potential anguish. Yet this tendency is tempered by a humble elegance, the camera gliding over the serene North Shore bay and a few consciously ironic instances of tempestuous, wintry weather. Certain shots and sequences, without relying on expository dialogue, enhance much of the film’s emotion, especially with the shifting character moods. Instances such as Patrick running a stick along a cemetery railing fence then digging at the graveyard earth or discreet details like Lee’s tiny basement flat window and the fishing-boat being named after his mother add depth without being too explicit and leading.
“I can’t beat it” Lee admits of his grief at a crucial moment. It is an important admission, not just for the character, but for the depiction of grief on-screen. Manchester by the Sea is a considerate meditation this process, one which we all confront at some point in life, as its depiction avoids simplicity, linearity and sentimentality. It allows for families to be messy, dysfunctional and the central characters to admit their defeat and potential to remain defined through this painful existence.Yet, Lonergan never allows the film to dwell morbidly in such a notion either, for the film’s well-observed and sincere humour and poignancy lift our responses. As a man, I recognised and appreciated the depiction of that male awkwardness within emotional expression and the fear of vulnerability. Yet in Manchester by the Sea Lonergan shines a soft, feeble light on where men should go to acknowledge and heal their pain healthily.