Manchester By The Sea, 2016. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
In his Inferno, Dante awards Judas the betrayer the very lowest place in Hell. And yet, despite the fact that he was guilty of the peccatum peccatorum, the “sin like no other,” the Church teaches that, had he had begged Our Lord’s forgiveness, it would have been given him. But instead, Scripture tells us, after Judas received thirty pieces of silver for his treachery, he went and hung himself. And tradition holds that what led Judas to pass sentence on himself was his despair: a sin even greater than his betrayal, for it closed Judas off from the very possibility of divine mercy.
The identification of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” as final impenitence dates back at least to Augustine. This is “the sin that cannot be forgiven,” precisely because it is the rejection of forgiveness itself, the refusal to make recourse to God’s mercy. But there is more than one way of going out without saying you’re sorry. One way is what traditionally called obtuseness or obstinacy: “I’m right, the Church is wrong, and if God doesn’t like it he can go to Hell.” But an equally disastrous existential position might be the conviction that one is not worthy of mercy. That however much grace abounds, your sin abounds far more. This is called despair. It is the commitment of one’s self to the belief that God and His grace are worse than powerless: they are irrelevant. That, because of the surpassing greatness of your sin, it is metaphysically ridiculous to maintain you could be redeemed. Indeed, it is inconceivable that there is a universe in which you could be loved. You are the square circle; you are the thing of which no lesser thing could be thought; you are the rock that God made too big for Him to lift. This belief, to which the act of the will which is despair commits itself, is called shame.
Manchester By The Sea, the new film by veteran director Kenneth Lonergan, is the story of one man’s shame. And of how life unsquared his circle by forcing it open.
When I heard the premise of this film (the IMDb synopsis reads: “An uncle is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies”), I rolled my eyes and predicted I would be subjected to a heart-warming story in which lessons are imparted by the fresh outlook of youth (much more than by, say, the wisdom of experience) and in which an old man is delivered from bitterness, from cynicism, from old age itself, by opening up his heart and learning how to be young again. In other words, I was ready for a seaside version of Up. A more perfect misjudgment I could not imagine. Manchester By The Sea is no fantasy: the story simply takes life as it is. It is a story in which salvation itself is messy and imperfect. In which redemption is incomplete. In which the best hope that is offered by the end is that life goes on. Life, and love.
Lee (Casey Affleck) is an overworked and underpaid handyman living alone in a nearly-windowless basement apartment in Boston. He doesn’t have friends. He doesn’t say much. Except for one time when a particularly impossible tenant of the landlord Lee works for causes Lee to lose his religion for just a moment (though without ever raising his voice, because he’s Irish, and is also not, at this moment, drunk). It is at this point, even before we see his first bar fight, that we first catch a glimpse of the darkness in Lee’s soul: of his hatred of his own existence. One dreary day Lee is shovelling slush off one of the sidewalks of the buildings he services when he gets a call: a call that thrusts a second sword through his already-pierced heart – a mortal wound that ends up saving his life.
The awful news Lee receives that day is that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has just died. A few hours later, Lee is on the road to the hospital where Joe has passed away. As we travel with Lee up Route 1 from Quincy, Massachusetts to the town of Manchester By The Sea, we are invited, by way of flashback, to witness the scene in which Joe first learns of the congenital heart disease that will likely end his life in just a few years. He is sitting up in his hospital bed, wearing a typically flimsy hospital gown that is somehow insultingly absurd on his dockworker’s frame. With him are his wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), Lee, and the brothers’ mutual friend and fellow boatman George (C.J. Wilson). It is a difficult scene to watch. Not because Joe is undone by the news; he is indeed stunned and upset, but is far from despairing – indeed, he is like a rock in the storm that is more or less tossing everyone else in the room. It is his wife who makes the scene difficult, as she disappears into a narcissistic tantrum and charges out of the room. Elise will go on (as we will see later, again by way of flashback) to abandon not only her husband but also her son, first disappearing into a bottle and then disappearing from the house and from their lives.
In the years that follow (as we will see later, again by way of flashback), Lee’s own marriage falls victim to disaster, but Joe, rock that he is, is there for Lee: helping him pick up the pieces of his shattered life and start over somewhere else – somewhere far from Manchester By The Sea – even to the point of insisting that Lee allow him to purchase proper, comfortable furniture for Lee’s prison cell of an apartment. It is the love that existed between these two brothers that will later compel Lee, despite the agony it causes him to return to the place of his shame, to respond to the call to serve as guardian to Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a roguishly handsome, street-smart, somewhat wayward and more-than-typically egocentric teenager who quickly proves to be a handful – even to the point of appearing at times (at least to this viewer, at least at first) to be not worth the effort.
I want to pause for a moment to speak about the frequent use of flashback in this film. When I say “frequent” I mean the film moves in and out of our characters’ timelines so often and for such extended periods that time almost ceases to exist, frequently giving the movie a surreal, dreamlike quality. As a rule, I hate flashbacks: they usually strike me as a cop-out, a way of avoiding having to figure out how to tell the viewer everything he or she needs to know about the characters within the confines of a forward-moving story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But in Manchester By The Sea, this temporal disjointedness, this wandering in and out of past and present, is somehow fitting. Lee’s world is pain: not only the pain of what has befallen him, but the pain that has befallen those he loves. And so it seems fitting that a film about a man in pain should be something of a temporal blur, since reality-upending tragedy and trauma do sometimes make the where and when of things seem a bit irrelevant.
The most striking example of the director’s use of flashback occurs when Lee is sitting in the office of Joe’s lawyer, where Lee learns that Joe has named him Patrick’s guardian, which is the moment Lee realizes that to carry out Joe’s wishes will mean returning to Manchester By The Sea. It is clear from Affleck’s masterful performance in this moment (or should I say non-performance, as he neither speaks nor hardly moves his face) that a hole is opening up beneath his feet. His desperate, searching eyes fall upon the frozen harbor waters. Albinoni's Adagio in G minor begins creeping up, slowly filling the air. Then time begins coming apart – perhaps a little like Lee’s mind, in the face of his doom – and we start slipping in and out of the present moment before plunging fully into the film’s mother-of-all-flashbacks. To the night when Lee’s world collapsed there in that seaside town: a disaster for which Lee holds himself responsible. The night when, after it became clear that no one was willing to pass sentence on Lee, he attempted to pass sentence on himself.
For this viewer the experience was so overwhelming that it provoked a kind of defensive response; I was tempted to accuse Lonergan of dramatic excess. But now it seems to me that if there is excess here, it is strangely proportionate. Because what happened to Lee was truly awful – meaning that his tragedy is inspiring of awe. His is an agony that borders on the mystical: something like Christ’s humiliation and abandonment on the Cross. Lee’s quiet misery is so total it actually caused me to wonder whether Christ Himself felt something like Lee’s shame at the end: whether Jesus, who assumed human existence completely in order that it might be completely redeemed, was tempted to accuse Himself of having failed.
Lee’s return to the heart of his darkness is, however, the beginning of his return to the land of the living – and the path begins at the hockey rink at Lee’s old high school. There, Lee finds Patrick out on the ice – in a brawl with a fellow teammate. The coach breaks it up, then looks up to see Lee standing at the edge of the ice. Patrick sees him too. Skates over to him. We do not hear what is said over there. The coach goes over. The three exchange words. Patrick slowly skates away as Lee and the coach continue talking. Patrick looks stunned, but not shocked. He exchanges only a few words with his solicitous teammates. The rink has suddenly become like a wake – sad, quiet, awkward – life and time politely suspended in acknowledgment of something unspeakable. But for better and for worse, ordinary life does not wait upon tragedy and grief for long: As Lee leaves with Patrick, the coach muses aloud, like some tearoom gossip: “So that’s the Lee Chandler” – a reference to Lee’s infamy. And later, when Lee tells Patrick to get in his car, Patrick impertinently shoots back, “I can’t obey your orders if you don’t unlock the door.”
As a character, Patrick doesn’t inspire sympathy: he seems decidedly not-helpless, he is not the kind of person your heart goes out to. He’s like an anti-Opie, all the charm and none of the heart. But then, his mother did go crazy and abandon him and his ailing father, so there’s that. I was forcefully reminded of that relevant fact when, just after getting home from band practice with the girl whose pants he’s working his way into, Patrick opens the freezer looking for something to eat, and is gripped by a panic attack. This was a moment that completely blind-sided me: I was so busy resenting Patrick for dissing his uncle practically every time he opened his mouth – Lee, who was turning his life more upside-down every day for this punk – that I was ignoring the hell this kid was living through right in front of my eyes – that he was a boy without a mother who was relying entirely on his father, who was now gone.
Lee helps the still-panicking Patrick up to his room. “I’m not gonna bother you,” Lee says, “I’m just gonna sit here ‘till you calm down.” Patrick sits on his bed. He calms down. “All right, I’m calmer now,” Patrick says. “Will you please just go away?” “No,” says Lee. Lee looks at the floor, ending the discussion. But this time Patrick does not look like he is about to protest. Cut to Patrick fast asleep on his bed, lying on his stomach. Lee is still there, watching over him. My immediate thought was: My God, this kid is… just a kid. He needs Lee, despite all of his smart-ass cracks to the contrary. And Lee? He has become a rock, a father, to Patrick, not because he likes him (though maybe he does), but because he’s seen that a father, or something like it, is what Patrick needs. It’s enough to make you cry. And I did. I cried the tears of a father for a lost boy. I cried the tears of a lost boy who longs to be found. And I cried tears of gladness that there might still be a place somewhere where family still means that someone will be there for you, no matter how wrecked that someone might be himself (or herself). I don’t mean to trumpet Lee’s heroic virtue; I don’t think he’s a saint. It’s more like we’re looking in on an older world where blood has the power to give a man purpose. And in this case, the power to liberate a man from the un-adjourning tribunal in his head, by “enslaving” him to what must be done, because taking care of your own is just what you do. It’s almost as if God has created a world in which something like kenosis is written into our DNA. It’s almost as if He wants so badly for us to make it out alive that sometimes, for our sakes, he takes control of the rudder – takes the choice between life and death out of our hands.
And yet for all this it would not be accurate to call this film “a story of redemption.” It would not be right to say that Lee goes from being broken to being healed. By the end, Lee is still broken. Despite an extraordinary encounter with mercy, a mercy he encounters through the unlikely person of his ex-wife, Randy (played by Michelle Williams, who here delivers the film’s most astonishing performance), Lee’s shame lives on, like a cancer in his brain (“I can’t beat it,” he confesses to his nephew). He is forced to broker a sort of deal, a sort of peace, between what must be done and what he can do. This is what I mean why I say that the “redemption” in Manchester By The Sea is messy, incomplete. But where answers are not forthcoming, there is perhaps something better, something that can help any soul wait for when the answers do come: hope, founded on the persistence of love.
The aforementioned a-temporal quality of this film is also fitting, then, because Manchester By The Sea is, in a fundamental sense, not a “forward-moving” story that is building to some grand or even satisfying resolution; it is a story in which the ending is, emotionally, existentially (even visually), very like the beginning. One might say little changes, even as everything changes. But far from being a cause for despair, this “sameness” is something solid to cling to in the dark waters. This is a story which does not so much build toward an ending as to another beginning, which is to say, it ends in the middle – it ends with life going on, despite death. Because blood is thicker than water. Because life asserts itself in the midst of death as grass pushes its way up through asphalt. Because the light cannot comprehend the darkness. Because God continues to be God. That’s the kind of redemption even we of little faith can hope in.
Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic.