Manchester by the Sea is a film about an emotion, and its effects on the man who bears it.
Now, this presents some stylistic problems because, since the emotion is a self-loathing and guilt so spectacle-suffocating that we only get two truly cinematic scenes, the fire and random barfight(s) (regardless of how many fights Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) gets into, they’re all the same fight—with himself), director Kenneth Lonergan has to contrive situations that showcase the secondary effects of this inward-directed state of mind in order to actually make use of the cinematicity of film. He smartly does this by transforming the lifeline of Lee’s only emotional tie to the world (albeit half-forced on him), his brother (Kyle Chandler) Joe’s family, into what Lee initially sees as an intrusion on his exile into the abyss of self-loathing, but which he later realizes is the last, best, and strongest lifeline his brother could ever give him, something we in the audience know from the get-go by convention.
(I know that’s a convoluted pair of sentences, but I stand by it to the end, so bite me.)
The fire, and its crescendoing classical music soundtrack, recalls the famous burning house of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), and as paradoxical as it may sound, I think both fires achieve a sublime effect, Tarkovsky’s the capstone to an entire film about sacrifice and symbolism, Lonergan’s providing the rationale for this sublimely broken man before us. The naturally melancholic Affleck is perfect as the reluctantly brooding Lee, a person stuck in memories he wants desperately to escape, but that he also can’t bear to let go of. Lee’s self-loathing is so strong that it emanates a negative energy: it’s because of this energy, and not the stigma of his past, that the wife of a friend tells her husband never to let him near their home again. Ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) apologizes to him and takes back the rage-filled accusations hurled at him in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but Lee doesn’t accept her apology, because the children they lost weren’t just hers but theirs, and his guilt stems primarily from himself, only secondarily from her. He has scarred himself, he thinks, for life. The aura of his self-loathing evokes a chiaroscuro effect, so seeing the film in clean-cut digital was especially jarring—and yet, it hammered home the idea that Lee is stuck in a dark world of his own; even the cinematography and oblique classical music soundtrack deny direct viewer identification with him.
The legally mandated guardianship of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s orphaned son, brings light and life into close proximity with Lee’s darkness and literal death-wish. Lee’s ascetic life is contrasted with Patrick’s two girlfriends, garage band, athletics, friends, and general youth. The tension-filled situations arising from this contrast are set out, it seemed to me, like a play. Cinema has a knack for spectacles. The burning house is obvious, but why is the barfight cinematic? It’s the framing of the camera. Acted out on stage, we would be able to see Lee as he circles around to the innocent casualties-to-be of his ricocheting self-rage. But on screen, his disappearance and, after a pause, reappearance heighten the tension that the two men feel in that moment. Just as we know that Lee will reenter the frame, but not when, the men know that something’s going down, just not what. The framing leads us to identify with the men and their attention, drifting onto, away from, and back onto Lee—something a Lee moving around onstage would never allow.
And on further reflection, I realized that a play would never work as well as a film to portray Lee and his self-loathing. For a film with this pacing and subject matter, fewer cuts would have deepened the effect, I think, and a play of course has zero cuts mid-scene. But what we lose in shot length we gain in the manifestation of Lee’s lived-in environment. There’s a small-town quality to Lee’s stigma: the cold, damp fishing village with its quaint and close-knit community are a benevolent projection of where Lee’s mind is at: the lowest level of Dante’s hell, cold and claustrophobic and smelling of fish (probably). The film is the portrait not of a man but of his self-loathing, which needs an environment and community to reflect off of, like the moon reflects sunlight. In fact, it’s the man himself, due to the situation of guardianship that he finds himself in, who finally crawls past Satan and starts to slowly ascend, gradually embarking on the next canto of his life—another film, perhaps.