Manchester by the Sea is the worst kind of bad movie. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, whose previous films include the acclaimed You Can Count On Me, and featuring a cast that includes this year’s Best Actor winner Casey Affleck, the always excellent Michelle Williams, and a terrific young newcomer named Lucas Hedges, it is so well-crafted and emotionally engaging scene by scene that you inevitably lose sight of its misleading narrative and often socially regressive message. You leave the theater thinking you’ve seen a great movie, but you wonder why you feel so psychologically disempowered, mentally scattered, and dare I say “gaslighted.”
The film opens with Lee Chandler, a janitor in Quincy (pronounced Quinzee) Massachusetts played by Casey Affleck, at work. In between rounds of shoveling snow – for Manchester by the Sea the cold climate of New England is almost another character – he answers calls from the tenants in one of the four buildings he maintains. Some of them are likeable. A young woman gives him a tip because she has a crush on him. Some of them are about what you would expect. An old man with a broken toilet wants him to make a decision about whether he should get the basic repair or have the whole bathroom remodeled. Some of them are psychotic. After he suggests running the water in the shower to test for a leak, an angry woman in a nightgown accuses him of wanting to see her naked. He tells her to go fuck herself. She complains to his employer. Since he works for little more than minimum wage and a tiny room in the basement, he doesn’t get fired, but we also decide, like his boss, that he probably could have handled the whole thing better. Later he goes out to a bar, where he sits, glowering, alone, giving off such a bad vibe that we can only conclude that the woman who tries to pick him up by “accidentally” spilling her drink on his sleeve must be a masochist. Manchester by the Sea is one of the most sexist films I’ve seen in a long time, but more on that later. He caps off the evening by getting into a fist fight. He imagines two men across the bar are staring at him. They’re not.
So far Manchester by the Sea has established two things about Lee Chandler. First of all, he’s an asshole. Something’s bothering him. Do we care? I suppose it depends on the viewer. Personally I think Lonergan has set up an interesting mystery. Chandler isn’t a very likeable or charismatic man, but we are curious about his past. Why does he go out to bars just to be be rude to friendly women and sucker punch strange men? Chandler’s second defining characteristic is that he’s working-class. Here’s where Manchester by the Sea begins to reveal itself as the dishonest film it is. At its core, this is a movie about the upper-middle-class cosplaying as proletarians. Casey Affleck is a rich actor, but we know he’s supposed to be working-class because he has a five o’clock shadow, speaks in a thick, regional, New England accent, and wears a Carhart jacket. Manchester by the Sea has a superficial, and ultimately bourgeois idea of blue-collar Americans in the northeast. They’re Irish, of course. They drink. They get into fights. They watch the Boston Celtics on TV. They have something to do with the fishing industry, but fishing is never shown to be the relentless, brutal, time consuming occupation it really is, but something “authentically New England” lurking somewhere off in the background. What’s more, the film is set, not in blue-collar Gloucester, where you might actually imagine someone owning a commercial vishing vessel, but in yuppie, Ivy League, snobbish Manchester by the Sea, where the median family income is $143,750 a year. In fact, until 1989, “Manchester by the Sea” was just plain old “Manchester,” but since that’s also the name of a genuinely hardscrabble, blue-collar city right across the border in New Hampshire, the wealthy little town tacked on the “by the sea” to avoid any potential damage to their property values.“The Hamptons North” would have worked just as well.
When Chandler wakes up the next morning and gets a phone call, we begin to understand what’s bothering him. Joe Chandler, his older brother, whom we’ve seen in flashbacks along with his son Patrick and his wife Elise, has died of the congenetive heart diesease that’s plagued him for the past few years. The flashbacks showing Joe getting the news that he probably won’t live to see his old age are touching and effective. He’s nothing like his brother. He handles the news with a grace and a maturity we never see from Lee. In fact, Joe seems more like a father than an older brother, and since their parents are already dead, we’re inclined to cut Lee a little slack for being such an asshole. Already, however, the film, at least for me, is beginning to lose its emotional credibility. Lee takes a leave of absence and drives minutes from Quincy up to Manchester in Essex County on Cape Ann to the north of Boston to make arrangements for the brother’s funeral. A. A. Dowd at the A/V Club gave Manchester by the Sea four out of four stars partly because he believes that it dramatizes how “the universe will not accommodate your personal crisis,” how “at your lowest point, it will still hit you with ordinary irritations, the small stuff you sweat when you’re not coping with the big stuff.” But Dowd fails to note how selectively the film picks and chooses “the small stuff” that gets in the way. A man working as a janitor and living in a basement apartment, especially one with no family, is one or two paychecks away from being homeless. Chandler, however, simply leaves a message for his boss. “I should only be in Manchester for about a week.” He may have a thick working class Boston accent, a working class five o’clock shadow, a working class wardrobe, and a working-class, Irish bad attitude, but something about Lee Chandler’s behavior feels awfully upper-middle-class, at least to me.
I wish Lonergan had explored the relationship between Lee and Joe in more detail. For me, the least favored son and the family black sheep, there are all kinds of red flags, a deeper, and more narrative buried underneath the film’s melodramatic surface. Manchester by the Seas has been widely praised for subverting the kind of narrative made familiar by books like Irvine Welsh’s novel “About a Boy.” An immature “boy man” in his thirties or forties is forced to grow up when he’s faced with the responsibility of taking care of a child. Joe Chandler is an emotionally even keeled, mature father figure, almost a saint. Lee Chandler is a bad tempered, drunken loser. We wonder, along with Lee, why precisely Joe had named him the guardian of his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick. We initially conclude that it’s Joe’s way of tricking his little brother into finally becoming an adult. Like Joe, we’ve seen Lee and Patrick in the flashbacks. They’ve always liked each other, so in a way, it makes sense.
The best thing about Manchester by the Sea are the scenes between the Lee and Patrick Chandler, the uneasy relationship between a bad-tempered forty year old loner, and a smooth talking, sixteen-year old womanizer. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges have a chemistry that just works. Lee’s reluctant father figure and Patrick’s knowing teenager are people I can imagine knowing in real but something is missing. We learn very little about Joe other than that he was a man somewhere in his forties, and had a bad tempered wife named Elise, who’s disappeared. Although Joe seemed to be about the most likeable man you can imagine, his son Patrick takes the news of his death with surprising equanimity. Yes, high school kids are emotionally detached from their parents. Most of Patrick’s anguish over his father’s death is projected onto his frozen cadaver, which they can’t bury until the ground thaws out in the Spring, and there’s a gut wrenching, yet grimly funny scene where Patrick finally breaks down and cries when the sight of frozen meat in a refrigerator remind him of his father’s body at the morgue.
The problem is that Lonergan seems uninterested in exploring the relationship between Joe and Lee. Was there any sibling rivalry? Did their parents have a favorite son? Was there any conflict between the two men? Indeed, for Lee, his brother’s death opens up all sorts of opportunities. Yes, he has to be Patrick’s guardian for the next few years, but he also gets control of the house – which is paid for and doesn’t seem to involve paying any property taxes – the family boat and the family bank account. What’s more, Joe has left him enough startup money in the will to make his life over again in Manchester should he choose to do so. Sure his beloved older brother is dead, but that untimely heart attack has given him the opportunity to get out of his crappy basement apartment in Quincy, and escape a horrible dead end job, to start over again in his hometown, free from his older brother’s shadow, and with enough savings to get his miserable life back on track. If Lee Chandler were a genuine member of the working-class, there would be a genuine moral conflict. His older brother and both his parents are dead, but thank God, he’s not in danger of ending up on the streets.
If Manchester by the Sea leaves the relationship of Lee and Joe (and Joe’s wife Elise) unexplored then it’s largely because Joe’s death is only a very minor part of the film. Indeed, at some point, Manchester by the Sea becomes a veritable “Gish Gallop” of personal tragedy. It throws so much misery at us so quickly that we don’t have time to think about any of it, and by doing so allows the director to get away with whatever he wants. While Joe’s heart condition has surely contributed to Lee’s rage and inability to make social connections of his own, it’s basically a misdirection. Kenneth Lonergan is an extraordinarily skilled filmmaker. Manchester by the Sea is over two hours long but it never drags. Lonergan knows all about pacing. More importantly, he knows how to introduce characters and then make us forget them until the time comes to reveal their overall place in the film as a whole. All the while Lee Chandler was working as a janitor, then making arrangements for his brother’s funeral, then trying to bond with his nephew, we’ve seen flashbacks of Lee with Randie, his ex-wife played by Michelle Williams, and their three children. True to character, Lee hasn’t been a good husband. He bugs his wife for sex when she’s suffering from the flu. He and at least a dozen friends drink and snort cocaine in the basement of their house until two in the morning. So up until the film’s climax, we’ve simply assumed that Randie and the kids have been lurking off in the background somewhere. That she finally got fed up with his drinking and his immature behavior and just walked out on him the way Elise just walked out on Joe and Patrick after she learned about Joe’s heart condition.
It’s much worse. In fact, it’s so much worse that when we finally learn what really happened to Lee’s three children, it completely broke my suspension of disbelief. One night, after Randie kicked Lee’s friends out of the house at two in the morning, Lee, who still hadn’t had enough to drink, threw a couple of logs on the fireplace, and walked out to a local convenience store to buy another six pack of beer. Randie hates the central heating because it dries out her sinuses. Tragically, Lee forgot to put the screen back onto the fireplace,and the house burned down while he was away. He returns to find the police loading Randie into an ambulance and wrapping up two tiny little cadavers, the two little girls, in blankets. I suppose the baby had been charred beyond recognition. Lee admits that he had been snorting cocaine, and most of us would conclude that he had been guilty of at least involuntary manslaughter, but the police decide not to press charges, even after he grabs a 9mm pistol out of an officer’s holster and threatens to shoot himself. See above. A genuinely working-class, even a white working-class Lee Chandler complete with “white privilege” would not have been treated with this kind of forbearance by the police. An upper-middle-class or wealthy Lee Chandler might have been. In any event, Randie Chandler had all the reason in the world, not only to hate her husband, but to hate the criminal justice system for sentencing the abusive man who killed her three children to nothing more than life as an asshole janitor ninety minutes down the road in Quincy. Indeed, Lee Chandler’s behavior the night he killed his three kids goes well beyond “immaturity” to outright criminal negligence. It certainly explains why he’s so reluctant to move back to Manchester after his brother dies. Who would hire a man like that?
So what does it mean when Randie comes back into Lee’s life and apologizes to him? As with the relationship between Lee and Joe, I think there’s a deeper, more complex narrative buried underneath the melodramatic surface. On the surface, Manchester by the Sea is a film about a man who accidentally kills his three children, comes back to his hometown after his brother’s death, but is so broken emotionally that he can’t get on with his life, but I don’t think that’s what it’s really about. The letter of the screenplay says that Randie walked out on Lee after he started the fire that killed their three children. The deeper, more authentic, underlying narrative of the film says that she walked out because he was a drunken asshole who couldn’t grow up.
At it’s deepest level Manchester by the Sea is a film about a family black sheep, a younger brother who could never live up to his older brother’s example, a loner and a social reject always living in the shadow of his father’s and probably more importantly of his mother’s disapproval, and who’s glad his brother’s dead. There is also a surprisingly virulent misogyny buried underneath Longeran’s Gish Gallop of misery. On the surface, women are always available to men, and, indeed, barely register as human as all, yet in some deeper way they’re always withholding their love. They’re mostly just props. The woman in the bar and the tenant in Lee’s building fawn all over him even though he can barely be troubled even to say “hello.” Patrick Chandler is not only stringing along two sexually compliant bimbos too clueless to realize his using them, half the girls in his school want to get into his pants. I suppose this is believable. I’ve seen how popular, womanizing high school jocks use insecure teenage girls, but in the context of the rest of the film it registers as just another example of the film’s perverse attempt to validate toxic masculinity and “male privilege.” Women in Manchester by the Sea don’t seem to exist as individuals. They exist merely to validate the emotions of the men around them. They don’t have stories of their own.
Randie Chandler suffered an imaginable horror, the deaths of all three of her children at the same time, yet somehow the film seems to think that she owes Lee Chandler her forgiveness. Give me a break. Manchester by the Sea is a dishonest film posing as a brave examination of an unspeakable tragedy. It’s a bad film. It’s even worse than its 1990s older brother, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, and yet it could have been so much better had it only calibrated its plot more accurately to the story it was really trying to tell. In the end, Manchester by the Sea is the worst kind of bad movie, one made with so much talent it gaslights the audience into believing that it’s something it’s not.