The film’s hero, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), is a janitor and handyman, fixing whatever happens to go wrong at a trio of apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts. It’s the dead of winter, and the neighborhood, dreary at the best of times, is at its most bleak and inhospitable. We watch Lee unclogging toilets, shoveling snow and then shoveling more snow, taking out the garbage. None of this seems to him to be any more or less unpleasant or difficult than anything else, and he does his job with an almost Buddha-like impassivity until a tenant pushes him too far and he tells her exactly how little he cares about her leaking shower. At a local bar, he resists the advances of a girl who spills beer on his jacket, then gets drunk and sucker-punches two total strangers. Clearly, we are watching a person go through the motions of being alive while determined to avoid any of the pleasures or consolations (intimacy, companionship, comfort) that life might offer.
The numbness Lee has labored to achieve is disrupted by the news that his beloved brother Joe has died of heart failure. Joe lived up the coast in Manchester, where he owned on a fishing boat, and where both brothers grew up; Joe has left behind a teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and a recovering alcoholic ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol). The lawyer who informs Lee that Joe’s will names Lee as the legal guardian of Patrick can’t believe that Joe hadn’t consulted Lee about this. Lee explains that Joe knew he would have said no, a reply that seems increasingly more comprehensible as the film goes on.
Manchester by the Sea is so engrossing that our attention never wanders from what we are being shown on screen. Its compassion, its tenderness and truthfulness, its patient examination of conscience and penitence, and its genuine respect for the complexity, intelligence, and dignity of ordinary working people make it seem the polar opposite of the reckless, combative tweets emanating from Trump Tower, and from the empty promises and rhetoric of the recent campaign. It returns us to a country (this country, not so long ago) in which it was less common for Americans to feel (and to express) contempt, fear, and mistrust of those fellow citizens who look and dress differently than they do. And Lonergan’s work reminds us of why it is so important—so necessary—to keep making and looking at art.
A great part of what makes Casey Affleck’s performance so extraordinary is how much he communicates while remaining within the narrow confines of Lee’s battered, brooding persona. He hardly speaks unless he needs to; his emotions span a limited range—from misery to forbearance to mean drunken rage. We sense that he is the husk of a person whose heart has been shattered beyond repair long before we come to understand what has broken it.
Shifting back and forth in time, Lonergan manages to make flashbacks appear natural and associative, more like the intrusions of memory than like a director’s decision to insert useful information about the past. Lee’s memories make sense to us; we feel that this is what we would be recalling at the moment they enter his mind. One such sequence takes him back to Joe’s hospital room, where Dr. Bethany is giving Joe’s family the bad news about his heart condition and its unfortunate prognosis.
“It’s not a good disease,” says Dr. Bethany
“What is a good disease?” asks Joe.
“Poison ivy,” says the doctor.
The characters seem grateful for this interchange in which humor reveals its power to lighten the weight of dread—everyone but Joe’s wife Elise, who storms out of the room, and in doing so tells us much of what we need to know about Elise and the likely future of her marriage to Joe. The film is made up of countless similar moments: beautifully written, acted, and directed passages in which a few lines are all it requires to reveal the depths of who these people are and how they feel about one another.
In some of the most powerful scenes, the characters manage to be at once eloquent and nearly inarticulate. One such moment, justly celebrated by the film’s critics, occurs near the end, when Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) confronts him on the street and begs him just to have lunch with her. Suffering from an agonizing mix of social discomfort and searing pain, Lee and Randi stammer and talk over each other. Lee ducks as he walks away, as if Randi is throwing something at him rather than beseeching him to speak to her. He’s grateful for what she’s trying to do, he tells her, but he can’t talk. He’s done something for which he will never allow her to forgive him, nor can he ever forgive himself.
Often funny, never didactic or preachy, Lonergan has displayed, in each of his films, an abiding interest in how we deal with questions of guilt and sin, and how those weighty spiritual concepts inform the most ordinary moments of our everyday lives and those of the people to whom we are closest. In his first film, You Can Count on Me (2000), a priest (played by Lonergan) rather bemusedly tells a parishioner than yes, adultery is still a sin. The subjects of sin and penance return, considerably ramped up, in Lonergan’s excellent second film, Margaret (2011). At its center is Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a Manhattan high school student who feels responsible for a city bus accident in which a woman is killed; she begins to act out in various ways that lead to more acting out, as her private school classmates have faculty-facilitated discussions about who is to blame for September 11. Furious at her actress mother for things that are not her mother’s fault, she develops a fascination with a sort of substitute parent, the dead woman’s best friend, played by the gifted Jeannie Berlin. Meanwhile we are watching the process (something that must surely have been a challenge to capture on film) of a teenager figuring out that everything is not about her, that she is not the center of the world: what John Berryman called the process of a child becoming a person.
As Lee reminds Patrick, the Chandlers are Catholics, but religion isn’t much help to these characters. Lee doesn’t want absolution or forgiveness, he doesn’t want his pain to diminish, nor does he desire human contact. He endures the hugs he receives at Joe’s funeral as if they are assaults he deserves. When Elise, Joe’s alcoholic ex-wife, gets in touch with Patrick and (having given up drinking) invites him to visit her in her new home, it soon becomes clear that religion has merely replaced one sort of addiction—one experience of powerlessness—with another. The minute Patrick walks into her house, where he is greeted by his mother (who combines the robotic demeanor of a Stepford wife with a case of near-hysterical nervousness) and sees the kitschy painting of Jesus over the dining room table, he intuits that Elise has not found a better life but has surrendered her autonomy to her frosty, controlling, pious fiancé.
I wonder how much the popular response to Manchester by the Sea will be affected by how strongly audiences believe, and need to believe, in the importance—and the efficacy—of closure and “moving on.” What’s both excruciating and satisfying about the film is the honesty of its tough-minded suggestion that there are certain things that you just can’t move on from, that you just don’t get over.
“I can’t beat it,” Lee tells Patrick as he tries to explain his inability to reintegrate himself into the life of the town. And we understand what he means. Everyone there knows him. They know what he’s done and what he’s been through. They have witnessed, or heard about, the remarkable scene in which the local cops tell him that he is not being charged because of his involvement in a tragic accident, and he suddenly realizes the difference between legal culpability and a self-imposed life sentence.
Lonergan gets it right about small and large class distinctions. When a thoughtful doctor takes Lee to see his dead brother in the morgue, we register the differences between the posture and attire of the man in white coat, and the man in the janitor’s clean clothes. But ultimately what’s most striking is the tenderness that the script and the direction display for all these characters: men and women, middle class and working class, old and young.
There’s a lot about maleness in the film, about what it means to be a man—a husband, a father, a friend, a citizen, a neighbor. Lonergan has great patience and affection for his subjects, and, watching the film, I longed for that compassion to rub off on me, much the way Chekhov’s sympathy for his fictive creations makes us feel (however fleetingly) like better, less judgmental, more generous people. I wanted to believe that the men I’d seen on the news, shouting obscenities at Trump rallies, might have something in common with Lee Chandler: their own regrets and sorrows. I would rather go through the world thinking that we are all suffering human beings than trying to figure out which of my fellow shoppers at Target might have made a political decision inspired by racism, xenophobia, and misogyny—which of them had had helped to put a dangerous man, surrounded by a cohort of dangerous men and women, into the White House. Who wouldn’t prefer compassion to condemnation, seeing the depths of another person rather than drawing conclusions based entirely on the surface? But we’ll have to see what happens now. Because if we believe what Lonergan and his film are telling us, we must at least consider the possibility that there are certain things for which, if we are honest with ourselves, there is no forgiveness.
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is now playing.
[Francine Prose is a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard. Her new novel, Mister Monkey, was published in October.]