Midway through Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed film, Manchester by the Sea, sixteen-year-old Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) complains that his mother’s fiancé is “pretty Christian.” He delivers this observation with a hint of adolescent sarcasm, as if being “pretty Christian” is not only peculiar but, indeed, absurd. Listening to him is his uncle, Lee (Casey Affleck), who dryly responds: “You know, we’re Christian, too, right?” It is, in many respects, a throwaway scene — a bit of conversational filler as Lee and Patrick run errands in this picturesque town north of Boston. And yet, as the film unfolds, it takes on increased significance, as Manchester by the Sea is a film about the possibility (or, better yet, the impossibility) of redemption.
Lonergan’s screenplay — which almost certainly will receive an Oscar nomination — is a masterclass in narrative structure, navigating between past and present with devastating economy. The story centers on Lee, a Boston-area handyman, who spends his days doing thankless jobs for apartment clients and his nights in expressionless solitude, beer in hand. Yet, when Lee’s older brother dies of a heart attack, he is called to Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle the funeral arrangements and to assume custody of Patrick. Lee handles the former task with guarded efficiency, as if it were an extension of his job, but the latter task proves far more troubling. Patrick is a challenging responsibility, whose social calendar is as active as his personal life messy, and Lee is faced with the burden of possibly uprooting him from Manchester or leaving him with his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol, in a poignant cameo). But there is an additional, and even more dolorous, complication. In a horrifying flashback, it is revealed that Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, another likely Oscar nominee), once suffered a catastrophe of incomprehensible proportions, and, in the wake of that event, Lee no longer feels capable of relationships, to say nothing of raising a young man. He simply wants to return to Boston and (quite literally, since he lives in a one-room basement apartment) bury himself underground. What’s more, many of the residents of Manchester feel the same way, effectively rendering the judgment of Job’s wife: “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9).
In the end, then, Manchester by the Sea boils down to this dilemma: will Lee choose to live (with all of the consequences of that decision, from caring for Patrick to reconciling with Randi), or will he choose to die? Indeed, it is a heartrending scenario, made all the more so by Affleck’s mournful performance. And though Lonergan seems to want to avoid neat answers, there is no doubt that his film is, finally, a tragedy. But what is a “tragedy”? It is a term that, despite a curious etymology, refers to “a play or literary work that has an unhappy ending.” In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that good tragedies bear the following characteristics:
- A protagonist with a basic flaw (ἁμαρτία) in his or her personality.
- A radical change in the protagonist’s fortune (περιπέτεια), due to this flaw.
- The consequent revelation or discovery (ἀναγνώρισις) of the protagonist’s true identity.
- The arousal of pity and fear in the tragedy’s spectators, which, in turn, brings about their own emotional purification (κάθαρσις).
Manchester by the Sea certainly exhibits the first three of these qualities, and, based on the audible sniffles and sobs in the theater, it achieved the fourth trait as well. Hence, as a formal exercise, it’s hard to conclude that Lonergan’s film is anything but a success. And yet, it is also for that reason that Manchester seemed deficient. It was as if I could hear Lonergan ponder: “What do I have to do to make Lee’s situation truly unbearable — indeed, tragic?” In that sense, I never fully accepted Lee’s περιπέτεια; rather than an organic occurrence, it felt contrived and, when combined with the other calamities facing the Chandler family (divorce, untimely death, unemployment, attempted suicide, alcoholism, ostracism, etc.), pretentiously overblown.
But I had a deeper concern, which recalls the reference to Christianity mentioned at the outset. As a tragedy, Manchester by the Sea effectively forecloses on the redemption of its protagonist: Lee confesses that he “can’t beat” his affliction and chooses to suffer his failure alone. Such a conclusion kindles our pity and fear (as it should), but it contradicts Lee’s profession of Christianity — a faith that, as Dante famously illustrated, is a comedy rather than a tragedy. That is to say, Christianity never stops at the cross but, rather, concludes with the resurrection and the ascension. Yes, it grants the pain of death, but this pain is slowly but surely overcome by love and, indeed, by Life itself. Despite featuring ostensibly Christian characters, Manchester by the Sea never seriously entertains this possibility. Its world is a world bereft of “good news.”
Needless to say, it would be surprising if Lonergan were unaware of this absence. Perhaps he’s commenting on the recalcitrance of human nature in the face of adversity? Perhaps he’s suggesting that, even if the rites and symbols of Christianity remain, we live in the era of the death of God? Whatever the case, in offering a tragedy for contemporary viewers, Manchester by the Sea takes us back in time…before Christianity, when the alluring yet haunting worldviews of Aeschylus and Sophocles reigned — an Oedipus Rex for our age.