And So It Goes
By Jackson Arn
Manchester by the Sea
Dir. Kenneth Lonergan, U.S., Amazon Studios
[This review contains spoilers.]
In one of the many unnerving flashbacks in Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) watches as paramedics move his injured, nearly asphyxiated wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), from the gurney to the ambulance. As the paramedics lift her up, the gurney almost slips out of their hands. On their second attempt, it won’t fold up all the way. Third time around, they almost drop her again. All the while, Lee stands next to the ambulance, trying to decide what to do. Shaking, he places his hands awkwardly on his wife, takes them away when the paramedics err, then puts them back, and finally—because, we sense, he has no idea what else a husband is supposed to do in this situation—he bends forward and touches his head to his wife’s shoulder.
Lee’s actions don’t move the plot forward in any significant sense, though they do signal that he feels he’s guilty of something, before we know exactly what. Instead, the scene, which goes on for a disturbingly long time, seems exemplary of the raw, uncomfortable reality that’s usually smoothed out of a movie in the interest of time. One might even argue that the scene is tool ong, except that, according to Lonergan at a New York Film Festival press conference, it was scripted to last a couple of seconds and ended up dragging on for more than a minute when the paramedics fumbled the gurney. (The worst part: those are actual paramedics.) Manchester by the Sea, named (sans hyphens) after the tiny North Shore Massachusetts town where it’s set, casts a wide net, capturing interactions that go on and on, until the normal rules of behavior break down, or kick into gear embarrassingly late—a condition of life that’s both immediately identifiable and rarely recorded on film.
The accident that injures Randi lies at the center of Manchester, much as the fatal bus crash at the beginning of Margaret—Lonergan’s previous and best film—dominates life for Lisa, the film’s high school protagonist. Late at night, as flashbacks slowly reveal, Lee lit his fireplace and drunkenly staggered out to buy more beer. When he returned, his house was in flames and his children were dead. Like Lisa, who’s partly responsible for causing the bus crash, Lee is guilty of a potentially minor irresponsibility with nightmarish consequences: he forgot to put the screen on the fireplace. Except for one crucial aside during the ensuing police deposition, we’re given no reason to think that Lee blames anyone but himself for his children’s deaths. The rest of Lee’s backstory is told mostly through allusion and implication: Randi divorces him, and he leaves Manchester-by-the-Sea and finds work as a janitor. Years later, Lee’s brother dies of heart disease, forcing him to return to town as the sole guardian of his nephew, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges in perhaps the film’s finest performance), and setting the story proper in motion.
With his willingness to throw ordinary characters into almost unbearably tragic situations from which no greater meaning seems salvageable, Lonergan stands apart from the bulk of American narrative directors working today. In many ways, Manchester, his third film, fits most comfortably within the tradition of American literary realism that boomed in the early twentieth century with Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, and Sherwood Anderson and arguably survived later in the century in novelists like John Edward Williams and Richard Ford. In some of these authors’ most famous books, a loner protagonist, usually male, grows acutely aware of his own powerlessness, yet also serves as a kind of case study for his flawed, insular society. As much as any school of modern fiction, the American realist novel distrusts the notion of a thematic resolution or “takeaway,” so that as it comes to a close, there’s little indication that the events we’ve just read about point to anything greater or more profound than themselves—they happened, and that is enough. It’s telling that many of the greatest American realists are now unfashionable in both academia and literary public (though Williams is enjoying a posthumous, NYRB Classics–sponsored renaissance): at its most hackneyed, their interpretation of realism can feel exaggeratedly, self-consciously somber, as if pain were inherently more worthy of discussion than pleasure. The American realist protagonist can seem flat and uninteresting—a representative social specimen, maybe, but a puny figure to support the weight of a 500-page novel. Realism is painful, wrenching—but is it art?
There are long stretches, especially in the flashback-heavy first third of Manchester by the Sea, when Lee’s entire life seems to boil down to a single, unfathomably tragic event. The film reveals what this event was bit-by-bit, so that when we finally learn the full truth, it’s presented as the key unlocking the enigma of Lee’s volatile existence—almost as if, now that we know why Lee left town, we know everything about him that matters. Saving the material from terminal seriousness is comedy. Not unlike many of the great post-Seinfeld comedians, Lonergan (who began his film career by writing Analyze This) has a way of topping deadpan observations with even more deadpan replies; instead of letting unhappiness stand on its own, he undercuts the mood by provoking cringes and nervous laughs. After Lee moves to Manchester-by-the-Sea to take care of Patrick, he punches through a glass window, and at dinner, when Patrick asks him about his bloody, bandaged hand, he mutters, “I cut it.” “Okay,” Patrick says, perfectly straight-faced, “Cuz for a second there I was wondering what happened.”
Casey Affleck’s earliest roles tended toward comic relief—with his boyish features and faint whine, he resembled a stubborn child insisting he was old enough. As he’s matured physically and artistically in the last decade, he’s taken to playing volatile, wounded characters, the most memorable of which (in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) seem in over their heads, shackled with responsibilities to family and even to history. Here, he embodies psychological trauma with remarkable verisimilitude; Lee sometimes rises to his responsibilities, but more often regresses to second child–ishness. Lonergan permits us more of a glimpse into Lee’s inner life—including one dream sequence that feels out of step with the film’s reserved, third-person aesthetic—than he has with his earlier, chattier protagonists, but for the most part, our knowledge of him accumulates during his interactions with Patrick, the straight man to his uncle’s self-loathing. As played by Hedges, best known for parts in Wes Anderson’s last two films, Patrick represents teenaged swagger in all its clumsiness—faced with tragedy, he thinks he’s tough enough to get by on his own, but only because the pain hasn’t hit him yet.
Patrick exemplifies a rule that holds true for all of Lonergan’s films: any one of the supporting characters is complex enough to merit his or her own story. For proof that, out of all contemporary American filmmakers, Lonergan most deserves the moniker “actor’s director” (David O. Russell be damned), watch the scene in which Patrick reunites with his long absent, alcoholic mother, Elise, played by Gretchen Mol, only to find out, over lunch, that she’s married a pious Christian, played by Matthew Broderick. As in You Can Count on Me and Margaret, Broderick’s character seems to have flown in from another planet, so clueless is he about the tensions between his wife and her son. The lunch, like many of Manchester’s finest moments, brings out tic-like gestures and phrases that prevent communication far more than they enable it (Elise: “You don’t have to be so polite”), so that Lonergan’s choice to cut away relatively soon feels like a relief but also a tease. Elise, no less than Lee, has tried to forget her past by moving away from Manchester-by-the-Sea, and yet, for reasons hinted at but never elucidated, Lee despises her. There’s a whole movie buried in the line he delivers while driving Patrick home from lunch: “We’re Christians, too, you know.”
There are entire movies, too, buried in the scenes centered around George, the boat driver whose tours of Manchester-by-the-Sea’s harbor provide the closest thing in the film to a breath of fresh air. Or the scenes depicting Josh, the man Randi remarries after divorcing Lee. Or the way Lee’s brother, played by Kyle Chandler in flashback, responds to the news that he has a few years left to live. Or the extraordinary scene in which Randi tries to apologize to Lee for saying hurtful things we can only imagine. Just as the film’s loyalty to the tones and textures of real life constitutes its greatest strength, its most conspicuous (and maybe inevitable) weakness is its abrupt “this stuff happened” ending, lifted straight from the realist playbook. Manchester by the Sea has to end, but Manchester-by-the-Sea continues on with a slightly different cast, until, given enough time, none of the original people are around anymore. In the film, as in life, it’s more rewarding to think back on the sprawl of events and people than it is to dwell on whether they all come together. Following Margaret’s already long-delayed theatrical premiere, Lonergan released a much longer version in which he expanded on storylines hiding around his film’s peripheries. Knowing Lonergan, the extended cut for Manchester by the Sea should feature an extra-long version of Patrick’s hilarious, painfully illuminating lunch with Elise and her Christ-loving hubby—confirming that his new work, to borrow from another great East Coast artist, contains multitudes.