Let's Please Talk About: Manchester By The Sea
Being from a suburb between Boston and the North Shore, growing up collecting precious speckled stones on rocky beaches in Gloucester, Rockport and Marblehead, I definitely felt a living orb of nostalgia bobbing in my chest for the entirety of this film. Every frame looked familiar to me and I could smell the salt mixed with the bitter cold even though I spent my winters 20 minutes inland. The Boston accents were mostly on point, the production design was pitch perfect, and I was fully ready to be taken on a heart crushing journey into the intricacies of very average, very human and recognizable grief. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for this film to fall apart.
Casey Affleck, to a slightly lesser degree than Ben, is at once so perfectly, authentically all of the beer drinking Irishmen I grew up with/am related to and also none of them because he is way too attractive. He fills out that blue collar uniform like a catalogue model more than a real deal working man. If you've ever met a man in his 40's who has spent his life drinking himself to death, repressing all of his emotions and doing manual labor you know it is not exactly an effective beauty routine. But OK, fine. I know how Matt and Ben like to tell stories about Boston. They like to make it shinier and sexier, turning themselves into working class heroes with just the right amount of danger and dirt under their fingernails but then definitely spend 20 minutes in the makeup chair with wrinkle removing stickers under their eyes every morning. At the end of these bad boy fantasies, they sail off into the sunset with their rippled abs and hearts of gold to go and see about a girl, who is most definitely ready and waiting. I'll accept this glammed up Massachusetts, because who doesn't like their hometown getting a little fairy dust sprinkled on it sometimes?
So here's Casey as Lee Chandler, the disturbingly handsome career alcoholic, asshole, and janitor from Quincy, stomping around a shitty apartment complex having a string of interactions with tenants (who I have to assume are a bunch of very nervous local hires) with varying degrees of hostility and apathy. I'm not going to criticize his performance because I think the Kenneth Lonergan failed to show it to us. He's chosen to play every moment with the same note of stubborn stoicism save a few incidents of misplaced drunken violence, which rings true for a deeply traumatized east coast alpha male with no healthy coping mechanisms or communication skills. If the moments throughout this film were built better, I suspect we would be able to see the ocean of pain behind his stone faced veneer and dissonant casualness in the face of tragedy. Instead we're often too far removed from the action in favor of neatly arranged shots and are forced to see him as a third party bystander might, which is unaffected and detached. This is a man who has buried everything down deep and fully buys into his self created mythology that he is the number one most alone and miserable human alive. He's the king of it. If being a dark, brooding cesspool of human suffering were a publicly traded company, he would own ALL the shares. He is beyond redemption and his preferred method of human interaction is punching someone in the face. Sexy, am I right ladies?
Immediately after meeting our anti-hero, Lee is called up to his home town, Manchester by the Sea, because his brother has had a heart attack. We ride patiently along with him the entire way up north as he gets his shifts covered and yells at Volvos, none of which is pertinent information and sort of feels like a moody, visual version of The Californians sketch where everyone drones on about which L.A. freeways they just took. Anticlimactically, his brother has died by the time he arrives at the hospital. We spend a few minutes watching a doctor, a nurse and a friend all fumble in and out of their given circumstances as Casey Affleck does a good job being patient with them for what I'm sure was many takes.
It's around this time that it becomes clear that Kenneth Lonergan is experimenting with simplicity here in a way that he has not yet mastered. Instead of controlling what we notice, building an intimacy between us and our main character and taking us along on his inner emotional journey, Lonergan takes a hands-off approach by showing us every piece of the story exactly as is and from a safe distance. There is no shot from Lee's point of view when he sees his brother on the slab, just one angle, low and from the other side of the room, composed to give every element in the frame equal importance. I'm sure this was a choice to try and show how excruciatingly "normal" and jarring sudden loss can be, what with paperwork to do and arrangements to make and the continued necessity of eating and sleeping to keep yourself alive, and I get that Kenneth, I do. But these belabored, drawn out chores of death coupled with the inaccessibility of our main character make the whole process start to feel, frankly, boring. If you want to see this done right, go see Moonlight.
Next on the agenda, Lee goes to collect his newly fatherless nephew, Patrick from school. We have to ride with him the whole way there, suffer through a patch of bad cell reception as the principal tries to tell him Patrick is at hockey practice in Rockport, all just so another school employee can be the first of many one line characters to say, "THE Lee Chandler?", alerting us to his small town notoriety. Lee collects Patrick from practice right as he's getting reprimanded for excessive violence on the ice, a potential red flag in his personality that is never addressed. He breaks the news to him rink side but this time we're too far away to even hear what happens and instead we get some semi-comic banter between his friends and coach and more vague references to Lee's reputation. Patrick's friends hug him goodbye in one of the only displays of healthy male emotions in the entire film. Once we meet Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who wields a confident self possession and ease more like a precocious maturing child actor holding court at the craft services table than a 16 year old hockey player in a fishing town, we are now lucky enough to have TWO tall catalogue models who refuse to talk about feelings while doing very tedious and painful tasks.
And this brings me to my true discomfort with this story and my favorite catch phrase of 2016: Toxic Masculinity. We are meant to clutch our hearts and feel immense sympathy as man and boy traverse the deep and difficult waters of grief without modeling a single healthy coping mechanism. Most common phrase uttered by Lee? "I don't want to talk about it." By Patrick? Some version of "Can I go fuck one of my girlfriends now?" Yes folks, he has two. Both of them cute, silly, undeveloped male fantasies. One the doting, overbearing maternal type who is completely available and the other a squealing, coquettish tease who he just can't seem to close the deal with but who says porn lines like, "Do you want to fuck me or not?" surrounded by her dolls as her equally coquettish mother confusingly thwarts their sexual activities while also seeming to accommodate them. "They don't know about each other" Patrick says with a hint of self satisfaction as Lee stares at him blankly, revealing no opinions on the matter. The most overtly generous thing Lee does for Patrick in the film is when he eventually gives him two hours alone to deflower girlfriend number two, which unfortunately failed to warm my heart. Patrick seems content to go about his daily routine uninterrupted and seems to have accepted the sudden loss of his father except for one incident where he is triggered into a small panic attack over his dad's body being stored in a freezer until spring. Lee flails awkwardly and violently at the teen's distress, which is short, quickly identified ("I think I'm having a panic attack") and promptly suppressed by Patrick himself. The best Lee can do is sit near him until he falls asleep. The subject of deeper feelings of pain and sadness is never broached.
Of course through this process we find out that Lee is Patrick's designated guardian, which throws him into his version of a tailspin as he dives into painful memories of an unimaginable tragedy that took his own family from him. We find out that he once had three little children and a beautiful wife who both tolerated and railed against his destructive drinking habit. The sickening story unravels in his memory and we are shown how a moment of unthinkable carelessness under the influence resulted in all of his children burning to death in a fire, all while he was stumbling to the mini mart for more beer. His wife survived, in who knows what mental condition, and he fled to Boston to hide in the cave of self loathing we found him in. The horror of the lost children in the fire woke me up in the middle of the night. I burst into random tears while vacuuming the next day. The devastation of something like that felt almost gratuitously awful, it felt like a little too much for this otherwise relatable story. Maybe because alcohol abuse and volatility are a familiar trait in some of the men I've known and the thought of consequences that drastic shook me with a primal fear for the family I don't even yet have with a man I haven't even yet met. Was the message here a cautionary tale to men of this ilk? “Get your fucking shit together before you kill everyone and everything you love.” Or was the message for women like me? “Be careful around men like this, you think you can hold things together for the both of you but you can’t. Their powers of destruction are too great.” The big problem with all of this is that Lee is still drinking. Not even the fiery death of his angelic children could force him into rehab. He drinks to forget, he drinks to fight and lash out in anger at whoever is nearest, he drinks to stay frozen in a perpetual state of profound self loathing and disregard for the life he feels he doesn't deserve. What we don't know is why he was drinking before that, back when he had everything.
After getting into a violent altercation at the local pub and nursed by a friend and his wife, he spends a day brooding as Patrick looks on with concern and then goes back to the nice couple to talk. We aren't privy to the conversation, again we are locked out of this private moment but for a second I inferred that he had finally decided to confide in someone about his feelings. The layers or grief, the relived trauma of returning to the place where his heart turned to ash, the weight of judgement from the community, the pain of seeing his wife recovered and starting a new family. "Help me." I imagined him saying. "I don't want to run from this anymore but I can't do it alone." Instead, we find out that he has simply made arrangements for Patrick to be adopted by these people instead. He can't face his ghosts, can't talk, can't heal, can't be a source of love and family for the nephew who could have been his son. He's going back to the janitor's cave in the city to drink beer and wait for inevitable death. When he sees that Patrick is distressed by this, he stands and gives him an uncharacteristic hug. Sorry kid, you're alone in the world.
So can we talk about this please? About how this man fucks up his whole entire life and is given a chance at redemption and impolitely declines? About Michelle Williams, as his wife, Randi, who has survived the same heart shattering event without the help of a numbing addiction and has gone on to not only begin again but FORGIVE this man? To tearfully apologize to him for all of the "horrible" things she said after his addiction literally killed their children? About how his response to her pitifully begging him for a lunch date is to run away? This the the best case fucking scenario buddy. The amount of gut wrenching work it must have taken her to process that trauma, stand on her own two feet, open herself up to that pain again by starting a new family and then to forgive you, whose sickness nearly destroyed her, THAT is the hero in this story. Or even Patrick's mother, played by Gretchen Mol, who is made to look like a sad fool for recovering from her alcoholism by turning to devout Christianity and marrying a controlling pastor who seems to keep her on a straight line at the cost of her other relationships. She may be struggling and stiff and forcing a smile but she was willing to go to extremes to regain her self and hopefully her son. That is, at least, commitment. Instead we're meant to believe that Patrick would be better off with Uncle Lee? The alcoholic who accidentally killed his kids during a bender, needs a therapist before he should even be allowed to have a dog and is STILL DRINKING? Come on guys. This is dumb. Don't make me sit through a movie about macho, testosterone driven cave men grunting at each other and plotting the conquering of teenaged girls and then package it as some starkly beautiful, moving art film about grief. Someone has to change here. Someone has to learn. Is it accurate? Sure! This emotional intelligence level runs rampant in our patriarchal culture. As I said, I have observed in many men this particular strain of repression and bitter discontent predicated on a narcissistic belief that their pain is the worst pain, the most special pain, the most uniquely incurable pain there is and therefore justifying whatever terrible behavior it inspires and perhaps even deserving great sympathy. But just because there are really men like this does not mean we should elevate them to the honor of being a protagonist in a Hollywood film about the aftermath of loss and make them look strong and manly while they completely fail to engage in the very necessary work of healing.
A man who drowns his grief in a decade of beer is not brave. A man who swallows his words and punches random strangers does not deserve a pass because he's a dude. Can we please stop telling our men that in order to be strong they must hold everything in except anger? Can we stop telling them that their stoicism is preferable to the awkwardness of watching someone openly weep? Can we please make it very clear that it is their responsibility to themselves and to the rest of us to actively heal themselves, to understand themselves, to treat themselves with astonishing tenderness until they can also offer that to others? Come on, let's show them another way. Women have been modeling this since the beginning of time and all the adult female characters in this film have drastically changed by their own sheer will and determination but men don't take cues from women, they take their cues from tall, handsome, well moisturized versions of themselves. Let's get Casey Affleck up there trembling as he tries to walk the straight and narrow while clinging desperately to a cross, cracked wide open with shame and a need to be loved. Let's see little Patrick Chandler feeling a little appreciation and respect for the girl who hovers like a forcefield around him, clumsily attempting to care for him by acting out what her mother might do. Let's see him look her in the eye and say, "Thank you. I really need your support and you are wonderful." Wouldn't dudes everywhere watch that and think to themselves, "Cool. I can be sad, talk about my feelings, ask for what I need and still get laid all at the same time as long as I appreciate and respect the people who care for me."? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn't but if we want to end this cycle of, say it will me now, Toxic Masculinity, we have to start elevating behaviors that counteract it. Let's show them a cool, handsome guy who can leave a a little booze left in a bottle and address his actual feelings and let the goddamn healing commence.
Which brings me to my final point on this story, Addiction. It's a well known fact that rates of alcoholism are high in Massachusetts fishing towns, and probably any fishing town, anywhere that suffers a winter lull and the accompanying financial strain and idleness. It's also well known that suburban America is currently dealing with a opioid epidemic. Kids with privilege and poverty alike are getting sucked into the dark void of addiction by popping their grandparents’ painkillers and switching to heroin when the pills stop working or are no longer available. The parents don't see it coming and it's a nearly impossible grip to loosen. A lot of families are just waiting for the phone call to tell them their son or daughter is dead from an overdose, they feel that this outcome is inevitable. I need two hands to count the kids I knew in high school who didn't make it to 30 because of this problem. So my question is this: why make a film that is so ruled by the issue of addiction, which is so prevalent in this region, why structure a story that reveals it as the true barrier keeping these characters from happiness and health, without delving into it's root cause? Lee Chandler's grief is not the reason for his addiction, his addiction is the reason for his grief. His destructive habits destroyed everything he held dear and we are not given an explanation why. We are shown an angry, closed off, broken man and the source of his pain is slowly revealed to us so that in the end we forgive him for being the way he is. I don't want to let him off the hook that easy. I want to hold him accountable for causing that traumatic emotional injury as a consequence of his addiction and then I want to dig deeper and find out what caused the addiction. And then I want him to deal with that deep underlying pain and perhaps leave us with a glimmer of hope for his recovery. Otherwise, what are we saying about all the men and women suffering from a similar affliction in those quiet, cold north shore towns and elsewhere in the country? Are we saying they are hopeless? Irredeemable? That what's lost can never be regained and their one precious life is already over, contaminated forever by the stain of a chemical dependency? I fucking hope not. I hope we don't tell them they are lost causes, to cut ties with everyone they've ever loved and to take a minimum wage job, live in a dreary basement and wait out the end of this miserable life. There is no honor in that and they deserve better than that. We need to tell them to stand up and fight for themselves. To dig themselves out of that pit of worthlessness and try to uncover whatever darkness they've been trying to bury with substances all their lives and face it. Someone needs to show them how to do it. I don't know the answers but I do wish Kenneth Lonergan had set Lee Chandler about the task of looking for them.