Despite its obvious Oscar-bait trappings, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is plagued by outdated ideas about masculinity and weak supporting characters.
Manchester by the Sea has a Woman Problem. Female characters only ever appear in the film as stereotypes or props for the male protagonists’ journey. For sixteen-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges), women exist either as abandoning mothers (Gretchen Mol) or sexual conquests. For his uncle Lee (Casey Affleck), women are either innocents in need of protection or incapable of responsibility.
None of the supporting characters, of either sex, fare much better in Kenneth Lonergan’s new film. It’s hard to imagine any of them leading lives offscreen, let alone having much motivation for their onscreen interactions. They exist solely to provide exposition about Lee and Patrick. The only exception is Patrick’s father, Joe (Kyle Chandler), whose role as the “decent, good man” is primarily to spur the plot. His death forces sad sack loner Lee to come out of self-imposed exile and return home to care for his nephew in Manchester-by-the-Sea.Lonergan does succeed at painting small town life clearly, even if the townspeople who flit in and out of the story are never developed.Click To Tweet
Yet Lonergan does succeed at painting small town life clearly, even if the townspeople who flit in and out of the story are never developed. Their purpose is to remind us that the place is small, the whispers ubiquitous. Lee can’t go anywhere in town without being subject to judgemental stares, echoing past mistakes he can’t escape here. His brother wished him to move back to care for Patrick, but the ghosts of the past are everywhere. Lee harbours a dark secret, a past failure that has burdened him ever since. His ex-wife still lives in town, but even she exists only as a manifestation of his guilt and then to be there to absolve him.
Lonergan’s interest lies entirely with the central relationship between Lee and Patrick, who were once close in the past and are now foisted on each other as they grieve. And they’re angry. Joe made Lee Patrick’s guardian without ever consulting him, so Patrick is faced with a guardian who doesn’t want him and is threatening to uproot his comfortable life. With his hunched shoulders and sunken eyes, Lee has spent the last several years avoiding all human contact or any semblance of a life; it was only at his brother’s insistence that he even obtained furniture for his gloomy basement apartment. Patrick, by contrast, has a full life in Manchester-by-the-sea: many friends, a place on the school hockey team and in a band.
Lee and Patrick are both emotionally stunted (especially Lee), so they mostly communicate through snide comments. They build camaraderie based on humour, but the film’s one bright insight is that being funny is merely a way of masking deeper feelings, if not avoiding them altogether. Humour is also Patrick’s way to force his uncle to engage with him. Lee is laconic to a fault: he can’t even be bothered to make polite chit chat. It’s not out of malice but a deep sense of self-loathing, that anything he can say or offer isn’t worthwhile.It’s incredibly frustrating that the film remains fixated on outdated ideas about masculinity.Click To Tweet
Given the strong central performances and Lonergan’s effective evocation of place, it’s incredibly frustrating that the film remains fixated on outdated ideas about masculinity. It’s not that there aren’t still plenty of men incapable of handling their feelings, but do we really need yet another story about them, especially one in which women are non-entities? Lee’s burden is based entirely on an outdated notion that, as a man, it’s his job to protect his family. Failure to do so isn’t, to him, a sign of immaturity, but proof of his inadequacy as a man. In flashbacks to his former life, it’s not the strength of his relationship with his wife or the personality of his children the he misses. He aches for the loss of an idealized vision of domesticity: children in the living room, wife in the bedroom, bros in the basement. It’s his position that he’s lost more than the people.
Throughout Manchester by the Sea, I found myself repeatedly thinking about Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, a far superior film about men — two brothers and their father — grieving a parent. Whereas the men in Manchester by the Sea can barely even handle their own feelings, those in Louder Than Bombs feel things deeply and can communicate them — just not with each other. If Manchester by the Sea sees women merely as objects, Louder Than Bombs revolves around them, even though its protagonists are all men. That’s partly because the family in Louder Than Bombs are grieving the loss of the matriarch rather than a patriarch, but more because it’s only through their relationships with other women in their lives that the men are able to slowly find their way back to each other.
The treatment of women in both films couldn’t be more different. While both films feature a matriarch who suffers from mental illness, only Louder Than Bombs treats this with complexity and the woman with great compassion. In Manchester by the Sea, we only spend enough time with Patrick’s mother to understand she’s a disappointment, incapable of being the adult presence he needs. Neither Patrick nor Lee have meaningful relationships with women: we only meet Patrick’s girlfriends long enough to see him attempt to bed them. We get little sense of how Patrick has been hurt by his mother’s abandonment and Lee’s relationship with his ex is superficial at best. Lonergan isn’t actually interested enough in these women to develop them beyond how they define the men: the women are merely symbols.For a film that practically screams Oscar-bait, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is terribly run-of-the-mill. Click To Tweet
For a film that practically screams Oscar-bait, right down to its ominous choral score, Manchester by the Sea is terribly run-of-the-mill. Whereas Louder Than Bombs experimented with form, finding new ways of depicting memory and thought processes in order to get us in the heads of the men at its centre, Manchester by the Sea is straightforward to a fault. Flashback sequences serve largely as exposition, with only the occasional quick flash to remind us how Lee’s current situation is evoking old memories. Both films feature men who are forced to confront their feelings, but Manchester by the Sea depicts a world where male stoicism is valued and tears are cracks in the veneer. The men in Louder Than Bombs may not know how to communicate with each other, but they are in touch with their emotions. The men of Manchester by the Sea can barely get inside their own heads, and neither can we.