Kenneth Lonergan is not the most prolific of directors, but when he makes a film it tends to have an impact. So it was with his 2000 classic, You Can Count On Me (reviewed by me here) as well as his recent dramatic effort, Manchester By The Sea.
On one level, Manchester is a story about time. Time overlaps, fuses, and conjoins in interesting ways, due to the non-linear way that Lonergan chose to tell his story. Not only does time overlap, but dialog does as well (overlapping dialog apparently being a favorite technique of Lonergan’s). The weaving of non-linear time and very focused, human, simple and in-the-moment scenes, along with overlaying classical music onto the scenes and transitions (extending Lesley Barber’s original score), gives the film a feeling of both the natural chaos of life and, ironically, of refinement. It is the tension between the two – the sublime and the tragically simple and human – that becomes the almost Zen-like framework through which Lonergan tells his story. This particular film probably could have been edited a dozen different ways, even though the outcome could have been essentially the same. As Lonergan said in an interview, the only way he could perceive the story being told was ‘all at once’.
This was absolutely by design; Manchester likely evolved into a final film in the editing room in a very real way, with substantial shifts and changes occurring at that stage. Lonergan may have even shot the different aspects of the story without being 100 percent sure of how he would ultimately weave them together. He apparently went through several drafts in writing the script, throwing out many scenes, rewriting others, then starting the process again. The result can be at times confusing, but ultimately satisfying as Lonergan and team meld together various threads of a the tragic tale of handyman Lee Chandler (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) as a pivotal error in his life caused him to lose literally everything, most importantly his two children. The film explores the consequences of that event.
While the story Mr. Lonergan tells is non-linear, the themes are timeless, as is the sea that surrounds the small fishing community where the events take place. The fundamental theme behind the story is one of redemption: how does one redeem oneself after a tragic mistake? Moreover, the film, it seems to me, focuses on the idea of how a person – a man – redeems himself in such a situation through what are essentially very simple actions.
Why would the story necessarily be different for a man than a woman? I will argue that this story is primarily about the responsibilities that men will often assume, mainly, fixing things in the way that the handyman Lee does. Moreover, the story evokes the necessity an ambiguity of accepting responsibility even where there is no clear ‘blame’ to be had. In the case of Lee, whose error was a simple and yet profound mistake, the question becomes one of context. The context of the mistake is that the character lives in a community that both created the framework of ‘stupid men doing stupid things’ to occur, and then makes it impossible for Lee to rejoin the community and accept their forgiveness – perhaps because there was a collective guilt associated with the deaths of Lee’s children because the tragedy took place as a direct result of a ‘boy’s night of fun’ that took place at Lee’s house, in the basement, where the children slept. His daughter’s deaths were, therefore, a communal responsibility.
That said, there is no real indication that, for the most part, the punishment for Lee’s error came from anywhere else than inside his own head. His wife Randi (played poignantly by Michelle Williams) did ultimately leave him, remarry and have another child. While Lee had a similar opportunity for another relationship, he didn’t take it. His choice was not to forgive himself and not really to move on, at least not until the end, where he allows another human being into his life – his nephew who experiences his own personal tragedy.
Within the context of a fairly tolerant society (Lee was not accused of manslaughter) Lee slowly finds redemption through the de facto adoption of his brother’s son Patrick (played effectively by Lucas Hedges) after Patrick’s father’s death (Lee’s brother Joe, played stoically by Kyle Chandler) – even though here Lee is also unable to take on full responsibility for that task and does so in a very cautious, meandering way.
In a world defined by competence, Lee’s error was one of fundamental lapse in his generally competent self as evident in a stupid error. So it could be said of mankind in general, for the problems of the world are very much the problems created by men and their activities – with the efforts at ‘fixing’ things creating more problems than the problems themselves. That men have, for the most part, shaped the modern world, Manchester By The Sea suggests that perhaps is their special place to accept responsibility for making it right. The film also suggests this may be no easy task.
An alternative to a male-dominated world is never really explored, but we are left with a gaping hole in the film, the ‘need’ for someone to step in and take control when nobody really wants to. As with You Can Count On Me, there is an palpable absence in the film that can be, on a simplistic level, defined as God. Or perhaps it is, in this city of fisherman, the Jesus who never shows up, referring to the biblical Jesus who chose to recruit his disciples from among fisherman. On another level, this absence can be defined as the loss of love, or the ability to love one’s self, and to treat one’s self and others with respect.
The self-hatred evident with Lee would, in another era, be fodder for the redemptive role of religion. In this film, the cross is taken on by the individual, who must in a sense take on the role of the Christ in order to find redemption; there is, apparently, no other way for a modern man do so, or so it would seem. The film lacks any sense of a communal or individual spirituality, outside of an off-the-cuff (and humorous) allusion to Catholicism and the non-consequential appearance of a lone character randomly on the street (played in a cameo by Lonergan himself) who appears briefly (similar to Lonergan’s role as the priest in You Can Count On Me) to chide Lee about his lack of parenting skills. As with You Can Count On Me, such advice becomes almost comic relief.
Thus suffering, in Lonergan’s tale, is so deep and pervasive that the superficial balm of religion and/or of God can do little to provide comfort. Lee’s mistake, taken as a metaphor for the modern human, puts the only hope for salvation clearly in the hands of mankind itself, and perhaps even more specifically with men themselves, loath as they are nowadays to accept that there may be a sort of universal male attitude problem and inability to mature, particularly in the US, the country that has spread its influence quite effectively in the world, and where the fruits of that influence are a mixed bag, to say the least.
As for the story of Manchester By The Sea, the most moving moment is where Randi forgives Lee. It is in Randi’s forgiveness that the film ultimately speaks to reconciliation and the kind of catharsis that makes for great drama, although again Lee is unable to accept Randi’s forgiveness as he can apparently not forgive himself.
At the end of the day, perhaps Manchester By The Sea seems to strike a chord with audiences because it portrays the perceived impossibility of our current world situation, where human beings have created their own hell through their own numerous errors in judgment, and have to somehow either fix it or sink with their own doomed ship. With the (male defined) world order clearly at risk, and the rise of scapegoating populism, it seems that the forgiveness displayed by Lee’s wife Randi is the only real hope for humanity.
Is this the ‘prescription’ given by Lonergan and Manchester By The Sea? Probably not, as I’m sure Mr. Lonergan would deny the film is in any way prescriptive in nature or perhaps not even recognize some of the comments that I’ve made about his film as being part of his intended result. But still, this is my takeaway and my advice from viewing Manchester By The Sea. For without forgiveness and love – and quietly accepting individual responsibility for our behavior without complaint or expectation of reward – without these qualities, there is only a never ending cycle of hatred and blame.
Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.