One of the hardest things to do in American cinema and television at the moment is to craft a timely and compelling narrative about white people. Of course, white people still dominate most cinematic and televisual narratives, but that very fact prevents most of those narratives from engaging with whiteness as an increasingly disenfranchised minority, or with whiteness as merely one perspective among others. For almost the first time in the history of American cinema and television, whiteness has been dissociated from the universal address of the camera in ways that make most depictions of white people feel either oblivious or revanchist, to the point where it almost takes a deliberately archaic auteurism to depict whiteness in anything resembling its current state. Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film, Manchester by the Sea, is an auteurist gesture of that kind, insofar as it takes a fairly standard narrative – rehabilitation of white masculinity through fatherhood – and finds itself unable to completely commit to it in any kind of cathartic or categorical way.
As with Lonergan’s previous two films, the narrative arc is fairly broad, leaving him ample room to fill in the textural details and incidental flourishes that make him such a masterly director. We open with Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, a janitor living and working in Boston who returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea upon discovering that his older brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler, has abruptly passed away. Upon arriving back in Manchester, Lee finds that he has been made sole custodian of Joe’s son, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, and that Joe has made accommodations in his will for Lee to move back to his hometown permanently. While his situation in Boston might make that seem like a fairly appealing prospect, it turns out that Lee has a pretty good reason for wanting to stay away from Manchester. Through a series of suggestive flashbacks, Lonergan reveals that Lee has suffered a terrible tragedy that makes the prospect of spending any time in Manchester utterly traumatic. Some years ago, Lee was married to his high school sweetheart, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, and had three children. However, after a drunken night with his friends, Lee forgot to put the grate on the hearth, leading to a fire that consumed all three of his daughters and barely allowed Randi to escape with her life.
Years later, Randi has forgiven Lee, but it’s clear that the trauma of his past hangs heavy over him as he tries to figure out how much time to spend in Manchester while disposing of Joe’s estate. As might be expected, that gives the film a classically tragic tone that’s only enhanced by Lonergan’s stately pacing and virtually exclusive use of classical music to score his scenes. Yet for all the harrowing sequences depicting the fire and its aftermath, this whole part of the film feels like a bit of a red herring, since the real pathos of Lee’s character – as we are meant to understand it – already inheres in his subject position as a white, straight, disenfranchised male. Sure, the fire accentuates it and lends it a tragic intensity, but there’s a sense that Lee has already been pushed to the fringes of his own life long before the fire occurs. In fact, it’s that sense of impotence and frustration that leads him to alcohol in the first place, as Lonergan’s flashbacks take care to emphasise that Lee was already a fairly middling father and husband in the early stages of his marriage to Randi. At no point in the film do we see a version of Lee that is liberated from this sense of constriction and foreclosed futurity, imbuing his presence – and Affleck’s presence – with an inchoate yet barely contained sense of having somehow missed out on the good life within his own life.
At one level, there is no better actor to play that role than Casey Affleck. Exuding one of the most self-important and self-pitying presences of any Hollywood star, he works perfectly in roles that depend upon suspicious, paranoid masculinity but which also – crucially here – require a lugubrious and sentimental investment of energy from a predominantly white audience. Sententious in virtually every film he’s appeared in, he’s become a poster boy for the brand of Bostonface that, in recent years, has risen as a kind of cinematic argument for the tragic dignity of whiteness, even or especially when it is promulgated by actors and directors that don’t have any authentic connection to Boston or Massachusetts in the first place. In its alternation between Boston, whose white population has plummeted in the wake of the recession, and Manchester, which remains one of the whitest settlements along the Massachusetts seaboard, Manchester by the Sea often feels like a wry comment on this white fantasy of working-class Boston, lending Lee’s decisions about whether to stay or depart an additional level of complexity. So, too, does the renewed attention to Affleck’s sexual assault allegations, which make his presence in Manchester feel just that little bit more defiantly self-important, even as they undercut his self-importance with a sense that the tragic pathos surrounding Lee’s character is a bit unearned, especially in comparison to the trauma of Randi, who was actually in the house when it burned down and narrowly escaped with her life after trying to save her children.
Yet part of what makes Manchester so compelling is that it refuses to honour this aspect of Affleck’s screen persona, just as it refuses to honour the rehabilitation of white masculinity through fatherhood that it initially seems to promise. That said, “refusal” is perhaps not the right word, since Lonergan seems to earnestly want to present something of a redemption narrative, but equally unable to fully carry it through to its logical or sentimental conclusion. Given Lonergan’s considerable narrative talents, that can’t be a matter or incompetence or laziness – like Margaret, Manchester was in production for a long time – but suggests more that the film is interested in performing or enacting the impossibilities of its premise in a contemporary American milieu. As a result, Affleck becomes more and more displaced from the centre of the film, withdrawing more and more into himself in a sharp counterpoint to Anna Paquin’s flamboyant extroversion in Margaret. Far from redeeming himself in any bravura way, Lee seems to become so shrivelled and inwards-looking that he’s virtually absent from most of the key scenes in which he appears. That’s not to say that he doesn’t change at all, or that the film is exactly pessimistic, but that what ensues is more of a slight modulation away from his past than any definitive transformation, a subliminal shift in atmosphere that momentarily makes it feel as if the film has ended too soon or too late. Continually shielding himself against the cold – the bright skies just make the freezing sea winds feel all the more palpable – he seems to personify the greyness and drabness of post-Recession America, and while we can believe in him a little bit more by the end of the film, he never offers any answers or makes any promises, abstracting himself more and more from definitive and emphatic gestures as the film proceeds.
In other words, Manchester by the Sea can’t quite bring itself to believe in rehabilitation through reinstated parenthood – and that’s the real tragedy of the film. Among other things, that means that there is no real redeeming relationship in the film – certainly no romantic or sexual relationship – just a constellation of encounters that reminded me why Lonergan is arguably the greatest storyteller in contemporary American cinema. Perfectly posed and paced, and suffused with an evocative sense of space and place, Manchester is full of beautiful and frequently comic side details and textural flourishes that linger in your mind long after the film is over. Interspersed with gorgeously framed pillow shots and montage sequences set to classical music, there’s a grand and stately sense of narrative that might grow static were the narrative not so peripatetic, with Lee moving around the town so much that it feels as Lonergan’s camera also genuinely inhabits it, creating a world that finally feels almost as rich as that of Margaret and a portrait of an entire community. The result is an incredibly lived-in feel, as well as a gradual and grudging willingness on Lee’s part to think of himself as living in Manchester, if only temporarily, rather than just passing through. That sense of lived and embodied time is quite unique in contemporary cinema, thanks in no small part to the brilliant editing, which is not quite continuous or discontinuous but more like the provisional shift in focus that occurs as we move from one chapter to the next. Even the copious use of flashbacks doesn’t feel strained – most of the time – as Lonergan reiterates himself as one of the most genuinely literary and novelist of all contemporary directors. For all that this is an immersive cinematic experience, Manchester By the Sea also feels like a screenplay that might be enormously enjoyable to read.
Yet for all those attributes, I came away feeling as if I admired Manchester by the Sea more than I enjoyed it, especially in comparison to Margaret, which I still feel is one of the most ambitious and astonishing films this century. Granted, most films would pale in comparison to Margaret, while it’s unfair to ask a director to enact a labour of love on that gigantic scale more than once in their career. Nevertheless, it’s not merely a matter of scale or of ambition but character, since I frequently found myself wondering why Lonergan had chosen to expend such an extraordinary narrative proclivity on this particular story and protagonist. While the formal challenge posed by a character who barely changes has clearly pushed Lonergan to new heights of narrative ingenuity, Lee’s – and Affleck’s – brand of petulant masculinity seems so inimical to the emergent and experimental mood of Margaret that at times this didn’t even feel written by the Lonergan I knew and loved. Just as Margaret somehow managed to feel ahead of its time with a period piece about the aftermath of September 11 so there was something almost archaic about the way in which Manchester By the Sea present the failed rehabilitation of white masculinity of a tragic fact, even if it felt timely as well. Where Margaret felt messily and anarchically original – there was almost too much for a single film, and that was part of the pleasure – Manchester reverts to a more traditional auteurist sensibility as the best vehicle for a protagonist whose fantasies of auteurist control over his own life have never really been viable. Granted, that may have produced an unprecedented sense of craft and classicism on Lonergan’s part – tantamount to watching a period drama set in the present – but it did also make me yearn a little for the sheer anti-auteurism of Margaret’s willingness to throw everything at the wall and then edit it down to what really stuck.