From Daniel Eagan’s interview with Lonergan for Film Comment, November 11, 2016:
“What I’m really interested in is people struggling with situations that are bigger than they are, that are overwhelming to them. Also the disparity of experience, the variety of human experience, how one person can have one kind of life and his neighbor will have a completely different kind in every respect. That never ceases to fascinate and confound me and also impress me.”
Q: Is there any solution to grief?
“I don’t think there is, except for time and finding other emotional content in your life as you get older and grow and more time passes between your loss and the present.”
We viewers mustn’t look to the films of Kenneth Lonergan — You Can Count On Me, Margaret, now Manchester by the Sea — for solutions, and yet, we find them anyway. Lonergan is an artist, one of the most gifted and moving in contemporary American cinema, but he is also a person. More importantly, he’s a humanist — a non-judge of faults and contradictions, one who seeks to resolve the momentary conflicts before the larger ones. The strained bond between a brother and a sister in You Can Count on Me, for example: in many other directors’ hands, forgetting to pick up a young nephew from school or kicking that same nephew out of a car in retaliation would be exploited and dragged. But not when at the mercy of a phlegmatic vision. We sense the hurt in the subtle motions or brief bursts of rage from Lonergan’s immensely qualified ensembles that fill out each film. We hear it in the unfinished sentences and subliminal wordings. Nothing is simple. Nobody is right. Nobody can match each other’s level of experience. Nobody knows just what the fuck to do. How can we live like that?
Manchester by the Sea feels like a film affected by time and the wisdom accrued therein. Though it’s been five years since 2011’s Margaret, it’s really been ten years since Lonergan finished a film (I won’t bore you with the details of that film’s nightmare backstory, but I invite you to indulge it for yourself). Margaret towers with ambition and tragedy, the enormous bound a director might take once he’s moved audience with the quaintness of You Can Count On Me. If that film focused on the conflicting voices of a few people with in a town, then Margaret takes those same voices and tells them how easily they get lost in a flood. There’s a little bit of that happening in Manchester by the Sea, as Casey Affleck’s character bears direct responsibility for his failure as a guardian and provider and demands somebody punish him for it. In the grand scheme of the surrounding world, what he’s done to deserve his collapsed family, his irreversible misery, and worsening alcohol abuse matters little. He’s too easily left off the hook. For himself, and for his family, he’ll never be forgiven, and maybe that’s for the best. He has to live with what he’s done, and attempt to salvage what comes his way. Like Lisa in Margaret, he’s haunted by memory, but he feels less willing to singlehandedly save the world.
We begin by stretching across the water. Our toes can feel the cool touch of New England’s water as we pull towards the boats. This is sweet, calming, comforting — a place to nurture and grow with another. Such is the case for Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) goofing around with nephew Patrick (Ben O’Brien) aboard a boat. “If you could choose to live with me or your dad on an island,” Lee posits, “who would it be?” No hesitance: “My dad,” says Patrick. There’s no hurt feelings. As Lee will begin to realize, there’s no replacing a father. This is a happy memory. Flash forward to the present: now it’s winter, and Lee deals with clients as a handyman in an apartment complex. Gone is the playfulness with his voice as he struggles with these purely transactional meetings. Check out a problem, resist the urge to tell somebody off, toss the garbage, repeat. Go to a bar, punch a dude. Whatever. Then a call is received: his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suffered a fatal heart attack. Patrick travels to his hometown of Manchester to tend to the proceedings, and to break the news to Patrick (as a teenager by Lucas Hedges). Like his uncle, Patrick has violent urges, too — but he’s a kid, and there’s an understanding to his irrationality. With Lee, the very appearance of him inspires whispers: “Didn’t he…” “No, it’s not true.” What happened that was so terrible that people walk on egg shells around him?
I won’t say, but know that his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is a part. The very notion of seeing her again after a horrible tragedy compounds Lee’s anxieties, the most recurring being just how he watches over Patrick? What can he let him do? What’s left of the ten year old? Can he contend with the confidence of a popular young man who’s still not figured out women yet? Where can he commiserate in both of their losses? In her piece on Margaret for Film Comment, Violet Lucca points out the recurrence of performance in Lonergan’s films. As a writer with a theater discipline, Lonergan keeps the stage onscreen: many scenes, like the very first, give the actors plenty of room. There’s room for flaws, for input. He keeps a distance. Even in his cameos, he is a calm presence, even if his words don’t offer any help whatsoever. He recognizes the recurrence and pressure of performance in our daily lives — Lee can’t keep a happy face anymore. Patrick sees a freezer and loses it. When should niceties split apart, and how do we reform them once fractured? How important is it that we keep the illusion of a bond and a shared peace, even when more complexities lurk underneath? Again, Lonergan has no solutions; all he offers is a recognition of those struggles.
The descriptor “confrontational” is synonymous with provocative and abrasive. Kenneth Lonergan confronts us in how complex we can get in just the mundane parts of the day. He confronts what we expect from actions and reactions. For one of the film’s examples: if a brother outright rejects charity, is it better wait or reject them right back? It’s important, Manchester demonstrates, to step back for a moment. To establish where the other person is coming from. Even if they don’t, it’s not the end of their relationship. In one case, there’s a fight, then a friendly game of catch. It’s like they’re back on the boat in happier days. It recalls the relationship between Rory Culkin and uncle Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me. Patrick and Lee could very well be those same two people. Lucas, with the pressures of life and death rushing toward him, has a little bit of Margaret’s Lisa in him too. It’s as though with each film, Lonergan checks back with these characters in different guises and names. As he learns and grows, he finds new ways for them to see life, love, grief, confusion, etc. They clash and contradict, but the embrace of the experience is where the value is. Even if failure is imminent, the struggle matters because it was a struggle. That’s a valuable lesson that makes Manchester by the Sea required viewing.