Caught between the Scylla of returning to face a tragic past and the Charybdis of living a frustrating present, Lee Chandler assesses the path forward in Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply affecting Manchester by the Sea.
Director of Photography:
Jody Lee Lipes
Running time: 135 minutes
In his third cinematic meditation on loss, Kenneth Lonergan boldly interweaves two parts of storyline with devastating effect to create a rich tapestry of events in the past that explain, insofar as it is possible to explain flesh-and-blood people, the sombre emotional mood in the present. Manchester by the Sea is in no hurry to unpack all the emotional baggage. But the deliberate rhythm helps the viewer to digest the immensity of the trauma that stretches many years of heartache and to comprehend, if not always empathise with, the central character and his stunted reactions to the world around him.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor whose face shows little sign of life. He is currently living in Quincy, a city that falls under the Greater Boston area in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the film’s early scenes, we learn about as much about him as we will until the halfway mark. He fixes the plumbing in a few apartment blocks but has no social compass to guide him in conversations with the tenants. He barely interacts with the people around him. He goes to bars to drink and not to pick up women. And more often than not, he ends the night by getting into a fight with a total stranger.
But throughout this dour introduction, we hold on to the relatively optimistic opening scene, in which Lee, his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), are out on a boat. Joe is steering, while Lee is horsing around with his nephew, playfully comparing himself with his Joe and being a happy-go-lucky uncle.
But there is something eery about that opening scene. Besides the lack of any close-ups of the action and the characters, the boat, advancing as it does, looks almost static because the camera is moving at exactly the same speed. Our mind tells us there is movement, but the boat’s immutable composition dead in the centre of the frame makes us question our eyes. This is the perfect shot to kick off a film whose power lies in its gradual disclosure of the distinction between immediate and remembered events. Films, even those depicting events long ago, create an illusion of immediacy with the greatest of ease. Without any visual or audio markers to the contrary, the viewer is most likely to assume that any scene takes place in the film’s “present”, but with this shot Lonergan tips his hand, reinforcing both the artistry and the authenticity of the film.
We soon learn that this opening scene is set in the past. It is a memory. A few scenes (and many years) later, Lee learns that Joe has just passed away from congestive heart failure. He sets off to the hospital in the seaside town of Manchester by the Sea, where his awkward interactions with people he seemingly knows rather well immediately draw our attention. And then we get another flashback, set a few years earlier in the same hospital, when Joe learned his time on Earth would be much shorter than he had expected.
There will be many more flashbacks throughout the film. Some will seem happy; others will be devastating. At times, they appear to be traces of simpler times. At other times, they bring back hidden pain and sadness with the force of a sledgehammer. In retrospect, they are all tinged with sincere humanity but also an overwhelming melancholia.
For nearly half the film, Lonergan holds his narrative cards close to his chest. Lee learns his brother’s will designates him as guardian of the teenage Patrick. Lee, who views Manchester with a heavy heart because of all the death it has wrought on his family, wants no part in being Patrick’s caretaker father and has no desire to stay longer in town than necessary. The director gradually reveals the immense tragedy at the core of Lee’s character not as a stream but as a trickle that slowly brings to light the reasons for the present-day misery. But even the presentation has layers to it, and Lonergan’s film is nothing if not an onion that keeps peeling, continuously bringing the characters and the viewer closer to tears.
Halfway through the film, Kenneth Lonergan makes one absolutely inexcusable mistake: He injects himself into his film in the wrong way. Lonergan has had cameos in all of his films to date. In his début feature, the sublime You Can Count on Me, which might just be one of the best films of the past few decades, he starred as a priest, a role in which his deadpan discussion of fornication with a member of his congregation was one of many simultaneously serious and deeply comical highlights. In Margaret, he makes three short appearances at the other end of a telephone line as the lead character’s father. Displaying an awkwardness unmatched by any of his other roles, Lonergan’s trio of scenes traces the decline of a relationship but are overindulgent.
In Manchester by the Sea, the director shows up as a bystander on the street who loudly questions Lee’s parenting skills. This moment is harmless enough, but when Lonergan leaves, a separate shot shows the camera momentarily following him – an anonymous, peripheral character who never shows up again – before a cut back to Lee and his nephew, Patrick. This reeks of narcissism at best and incompetence at worst.
Although more bold than Margaret, this 135-minute examination of the way in which tragedy’s tentacles continue to leech happiness from the present is not a challenging film to watch and inspires little desire to be watched a second time. Lonergan deserves ample praise for making his flashbacks so unobtrusive and for tying them so firmly – yet initially inconspicuously – to the present-day narrative.
Time does not heal all wounds. We don’t forget the worst things that have befallen us. But while we mourn, the world is changing. And when we suddenly allow ourselves to open our eyes, perhaps the new configuration of people and relationships might just appear slightly more manageable.