Dir. Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams
The premise of Manchester by the Sea is one that would have fit neatly enough into the serious dramas of the ’40s or ’50s, in part because its drama is fever-pitch loud, and in part because it’s not hard to imagine someone like Casey Affleck (John Garfield?) slouching around greater Massachusetts, unclogging toilets and trying to keep his temper while he fights with a smart-mouthed teenager. The movie turns on a sequence which starts when Lee (Affleck) discovers that his late brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), intended to give Lee guardianship of his son Patrick (Hedges), a decision which would basically require Lee to move back to Manchester and which Joe never spoke to Lee about while he was alive. Lonergan cuts back and forth between this scene and what appears, at first, to be a basically inconsequential night. Lee’s got friends over, it’s 2 a.m., Lee’s wife Randi (Williams) comes downstairs, screeching the screech of wives whose husbands are indifferent to them that it is in fact 2 a.m. and her kids are asleep. In front of the lawyer, in a spare white room, Lee reels over the idea of moving back to Manchester, of becoming someone’s guardian again. We’ve seen flashbacks to him interacting with Randi and his children already, though we haven’t seen them in the present. It turns out, over the course of this intercut scene, that we haven’t seen them because three of them are dead. Drunk yet and trying to warm up the house, Lee lights up the fireplace; realizing that he’s out of booze and too sloshed to drive, he walks twenty minutes in one direction to get more and walks twenty minutes back. By the time he’s returned, the house has burned down, Randi is being loaded onto an ambulance strapped to a ventilator and a stretcher, and the kids are ash. His report to the police is straightforward, bleary-eyed, crushed. He is amazed that the police are not taking him into custody, and even more than amazed, he seems almost as dismayed that he’s not being arrested as he does about his terrible mistake. This takes some minutes to unfold, and the overall effect is stunning. The image of the house burning high while the frame crumbles is searing: from the first we know no one who was still inside could be alive by the time Lee comes up with his bag of groceries and his dumbfounded look.
From one perspective, Lonergan has chosen Lee’s infamy well. Killing one’s offspring in a house fire through one’s own carelessness is not a sin that can ever be wiped away. The marriage cannot survive that level of trauma, cannot survive the memory of those deaths; the man responsible cannot be accepted by the town. There’s a scene early in the movie before we know what’s happened where the hockey coach at Patrick’s high school sees Lee in the distance and says, That’s Lee Chandler? Nothing Lee can do will ever atone for the terrible thing he’s done, no one will ever forgive him, and he will be forced to live with himself until he doesn’t have the strength to do so anymore. (In the police station, he looks like he’s on his way out until he grabs a gun and is stopped before he can blow his brains onto the fluorescent lights of the precinct.) From another perspective, though, it’s too much. That scene where Lee walks up to his charred home with three little charred people somewhere in the wreckage is so spellbinding and horrifying. I don’t remember the last time I watched a movie and felt that pit in my stomach like that. But it’s so strong that we are inured to everything else which might also shock us or hurt us. That moment where he picks up the gun is a mistake, even if it’s there to show us that he doesn’t have the strength to kill himself, because it shows that he at least has enough roiling guilt inside to think about suicide. I have a harder time understanding how Lee outlives Joe than I do anything else in the movie. He has nothing to live for, and he does not act like he has anything to live for, so why doesn’t he just end it? If the answer is “He’s living because Joe’s alive,” then that’s well and good, but it’s not a particularly compelling case given that he moved away from his brother, and there’s no sense we have that they’re keeping in touch in any significant way. More pressing to me is the structural problem in Manchester, which is that if this were one of those dramas of the ’40s or ’50s, there’s no way that the fire would have been in the middle of the movie. Either it would have been a dramatic reveal at the end in which all was explained, or it would have happened in the first fifteen minutes. In either case it would have been a better choice. Putting that in the middle of the movie is too clever by half, because it makes the dead-eyed, occasionally punchy unperson from the movie’s first half feel inadequate to the enormity of his actions, and it makes the stakes of the second half of the movie feel inadequate to the enormity of his actions.
There’s something too clever by half about Patrick as well, who is blessedly indifferent to what movies tell him he should be doing about his father’s death. When Lee went to the morgue to see Joe, he hugged him and gave him a kiss and lingered. The door to the morgue barely opens before Patrick says he’s seen what he needs to see. He is significantly more concerned about bedding two girls and keeping each one secret from the other—their names are even similar, Silvie (Kara Hayward) and Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), and if they didn’t have different hair I’d have a hard time telling them apart—than he is about his father’s death. He is also more concerned about being dug up and removed to Quincy from Manchester, where he’s very comfortable, than he is about his father’s death. The only thing that appears to really bother him is the idea of Joe being in a freezer until the ground thaws and he can be buried; he has a moment where he’s opening the freezer in his house where he breaks down and begins sobbing at the thought of his dad in some similar contraption for a few more months. It’s a relief to not be overwhelmed with weepy teenagers, but the intricacy of this hang-up Patrick has is a little too Sundance for me. Much more effective is his connection to his father’s boat, which needs a new motor just as his father needed a new heart, and which Patrick absolutely refuses to give up even when Lee seems amenable to selling it. It protests far less, and it’s much less cute. More than that, the flashback sequences on the boat are meaningful in building character in a way that the freezer stuff just isn’t. We watch Lee chatting up a much younger Patrick while he tries to catch a fish, teasing him about how schools of sharks will come to tear apart the boat if he gets a cut, threatening to throw him in to appease them, etc. Patrick is not much phased by this threat (he knows sharks don’t swim in schools), but it speaks volumes about Lee and, to some extent, Joe. Neither one of these men thinks twice about this goofy needling approach to the elementary schooler trying to catch some fish; both of them choose to belittle the kid, even in an amiable way, rather than giving him something more wholesome to hang onto. Joe’s refusal to weep and wail about the diagnosis of congestive heart failure sets off his then-wife, Elise, who is deeply bothered about how unserious he seems about leaving his wife a widow in the near-future. Elise descends into alcoholism and later abandons the family, and the movie allows us, wisely, to draw our own conclusions about what drove her to drink even if Lee insists on vilifying her. Some people relate better this way, undoubtedly, but some people are also incapable of hitting their weight over the course of a season: just because this is how one is doesn’t mean one is complete or acceptable that way. The movie is admirably subtle about how neither Joe nor Lee is all that good a person, even leaving aside burning up toddlers, and how their influence has shown that Patrick, devious and greedy, has turned into something of a toerag himself. Manchester by the Sea works well when it asks us to feel some sympathy for bad people, and lets them earn that sympathy through the sincerity of their feeling as opposed to “Well, we’re all human” or some other dull garbage.
Flashbacks with Lee and Randi together show a man who is stunted with his wife as well; he never can access real kindness for more than seven or eight seconds at a stretch, which leads us to the movie’s other real problem. The movie’s most interesting character is Randi, and Michelle Williams gets a scant eleven minutes of screen time over a movie that easily tops two hours. Randi is able to remarry. She has a child. In a scene that would be more meaningful if that big sucker in the middle weren’t hanging around, she tries to apologize to Lee for saying some of the lethal things she said to him, asks him if he wants to have lunch with her sometime. Lee carries culpability that no one else in the movie can even dream of, but his grief is not greater than hers. Yet Randi has managed to do the things that Lee is terrified of doing, and is healthy enough to reach out to him and offer her hand to someone who has been treading water so long that his arms are numb and the water’s starting to fill his nostrils. Yet the movie never wonders why she changes, nor does it show us how she manages to reach that acceptance. It’s not a flaw that makes the movie worse, per se, but it’s such a glaring contrast that it feels like a missed opportunity for the picture to focus on someone more gripping than just another difficult man like we’ve seen done better and with more depth on HBO and AMC in the preceding years.