Emotion and Absence: Manchester by the Sea


Please note: this article contains spoilers and strong language.

A few days after the Orlando nightclub shooting, a friend of mine related an incident which she overheard at the George Square vigil.  Someone in the crowd caught a glimpse of a sign bearing the slogan 'Grief Not Hatred' and confronted the person carrying it, saying 'We've had enough grief!', arguing that in its place should be happiness and peace.  My friend's response to this at the time - thought, not spoken - was 'fuck off'.  'Grief', she told me, 'is weird and important'.

Those words came back to me often during Manchester by the Sea, in which the depictions of grief are startlingly accurate for a recent piece of mainstream American cinema.  Where Hollywood commonly thrives on the big show of emotions that reaches towards Oscar glory - the common ballet of eloquently articulate shouting and carefully choreographed howls of despair - Manchester by the Sea frequently refuses to either show or tell.  Instead, it allows its audience the relative luxury of intuitively recognising the emotional turmoil at the heart of its central character, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), through a continual process of negation.  The more we perceive the things that are no longer there, the more we understand exactly how empty Lee's life really is.

But if Lee's catalogue of tragedies makes him relatable to many adults who have experienced bereavement, the coping strategies of his nephew Patrick may even more accurately depict teenage attitudes towards death.  While the loss of someone at such a formative age does, of course, have its long-lasting psychological impacts, it also makes for a strangely particular relationship with grief which is difficult to capture.  For some, it can become part of the fabric of teenage experimentation, its effects and ramifications shrugged off as instantaneously as the aftereffects of binge-drinking or the fear of being caught shoplifting.  Patrick does display a few tender moments of shock and sadness, but they are nothing as compared to the emotional turmoil of the prospect that he might have to move to Boston, uprooting himself from his sports teams and aspiring indie band.

Meanwhile, the idealised, Western-esque brand of masculinity which Lee embodies and enables means that we are not to question the logic of why he chooses to outsource his urge to self-harm by getting in bar-room bust-ups with complete strangers.  Instead, Kenneth Lonergan ensures that his tragedies are compounded in a way that begs his actions to be tacitly excused, whilst always ensuring that Lee's frequent rages and violent outbursts are seen to have a direct motive, whether an inordinately idiotic tenant or a flashback to a past horror.  The film's supporting cast is highly complicit in this apologism, with various bit players making sotto voce references to 'The Lee Chandler'.

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This nexus of unspeakability allows Lee to maintain his taciturn chill, never being obliged to express his emotional turmoil except in the darkest of circumstances and in the most demonstrable way possible: otherwise, the film's soundtrack of Handel and Massenet serves the purpose instead.  Alongside the dignified grief which the film initially presents, this begins to verge on treating mourning as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card - something which becomes even more apparent in Patrick's behaviour.  He quickly grasps the fact that his father's death is simultaneously a tragedy and the gateway to what every spoiled teenager really wants: total irresponsible freedom.  Within hours of hearing the news, he is asking Lee to wingman for him as he prepares for a night with his girlfriend, Silvie, justifying his intended actions with an unsolicited (and instantaneously past-tense) 'Dad let me do it'.  Of the film's two main Mancunians, Patrick finds that grief can be important - for Lee, however, it remains unremittingly weird.

If Lee finds it difficult to open up emotionally to anyone, it is abundantly clear that he finds it difficult to speak to women at all, whether it's avoiding a friendly stranger at a bar, refusing to talk to a ward nurse or avoiding dinner and small talk with Sandy's mum.  Indeed, there is near-complete absence of fully-realised female characters across the film, apart from Lee's ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams); arguably the most egregious examples are Patrick's harem of girlfriends and aspiring girlfriends, all of whom seem to have sprung, Athena-like, from the same fevered teenage wet dream.  Unsurprisingly, the film effectively fails cinema's Bechdel-Wallace Test, unless one counts a couple of lines about an antique dollhouse - which Patrick has stubbed his toe on - between Sandy (another of Patrick's girlfriends) and her mother.

Yet often, the subtlety with which Manchester by the Sea is crafted can be reminiscent of some of the best recent films about family tragedy, high among them Valérie Donzelli's La guerre est déclarée (2011).  As Donzelli utilises brief, surprising dashes of humour to create the air of realism surrounding a young child's brain tumour diagnosis, so Lonergan captures the strange minutiae that attend the Chandler family's tragedies: the gurney which will not fold properly as it is placed onto an ambulance; Patrick's examination of the show display of coffin combinations at the funeral parlour.

But while Manchester by the Sea captures grief and its surroundings in a way that is warm and human, its tacit acceptance of the doctrine that boys will be boys and that men must maintain 'manliness' also undercuts this.  All grief isn't equal, and various flashbacks seem to indicate that the seeds for much of Lee's more anti-social and misogynistic tendencies were sown long before his life achieved its tragic dimension.  And, ultimately, the film asks us not simply to understand or to condone his behaviours, but asks whether - for all his faults - Lee could still serve as a good role model for Patrick.  Whatever sympathy we might have built up for Lee, by the end it remains impossible to be certain in this.  Grief is important.  But so is accountability.

Marc David Jacobs, freelance arts worker

13th January 2017

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