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There Are No Easy Answers in a Kenneth Lonergan Film

In ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ the director again explores the depth of grief

Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions

“I don’t like the fact that, nowadays, it feels like it’s not permissible to leave something unresolved,” Kenneth Lonergan — playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker — told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I mean, what the fuck is closure? Some people never get that. Some people live with their trauma for years.” A funny thing about interviews with Lonergan, you’ll notice, is that the writer will often preface the conversation with something like: “I’d heard he was insufferably fatalistic — but he’s actually kinda sweet!” That’s what I think of when he follows what might sound like a dismissal — what the fuck is closure? — with a clarity that reveals his sympathy. Lonergan is sour. But he’s also an artist of great perception.

Perhaps no scene in Lonergan’s new movie, Manchester by the Sea, sums this up better than its centerpiece: a long, startling flashback that reveals just how deeply Lonergan conceives of those persistent wounds he mentioned. The scene peers right into the heart of the movie’s hero, a custodian named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who to this point we’ve seen mostly in short, declarative glimpses: of his work life in a Boston apartment complex, plunging toilets for bored women who report him for rejecting their flirtations; of nightly bar fights, in which he lashes out against imagined slights. We’ve seen bits of his past, too, and of his relationship to his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), whose sudden death gets the movie rolling when it forces Lee to return home, to Manchester-by-the-Sea.

The flashback in question occurs when Lee is looking over his brother’s will. Suddenly, it hits. Lonergan doesn’t impede with one long sequence, but with a memory that’s gnarly and broken up: We cut away and come back, then cut away again. It’s musical — percussive. It’s a showcase of everything that makes Lonergan’s filmmaking so distinctive: the quietly furious editing that lends some scenes an extra layer of jumpy psychological subtext; those pristinely staged but unfussy images; the moral rigor to his characters’ conversations; and the director’s mutual sense of trust with his actors. Lonergan’s best technique as both a writer and filmmaker consists of peeling back the layers of who his characters are — and understanding not only what they do, but how they think. The moment in question is a consummate example of how he can provide an insight into a character that undoes everything we’ve already seen and unsettles our sense of where a movie like this can go.

What if we don’t change? What if we can’t? Like Rogaine and manure, many of the rules of modern storytelling are wrought from a single promise: growth. There’s a soft comfort in watching a movie or TV show and seeing a character’s flaws pile on bit by bit. You watch, aghast — but you watch. The implicit promise is that the characters won’t always be that way. Lonergan is very much a modern storyteller. But his art makes no such promises — resolution, when it comes, is worked for and earned, not doled out according to our expectations. Lonergan holds some scenes too long; others he cuts away from so suddenly the exit line can’t help but feel like a punch line, even if serious. He is one of our great living moral artists, not due to his own conclusions, but because he’s so singularly fascinated with how morality, as a spiritual pressure, works.

In his 2011 masterpiece Margaret, a teacher trying to convince a student of geometry’s relevance to her life asks: “Haven’t you ever been put in a new situation and found that, after overcoming its difficulties, you had developed a new set of skills and new experiences along the way?” The student, being a Lonergan heroine, says no, and then she has one such experience. Lee, of Manchester, is much the same. Lonergan characters are not the kinds of people who’d willfully change, no matter how necessary it was. So he dreams up scenarios in which they might have to. The world can make them new.

Lonergan has directed three films, but he initially came to the fore as the playwright behind sharp, observant classics like This Is Our Youth. He then worked as a screenwriter for hire, most famously writing Analyze This and doctoring the script of Gangs of New York. His scripts for other people don’t quite prepare you for his own work, nor even do his plays, which have an Upper East Side buoyancy to them that his films, mostly located elsewhere, do not. As a playwright, he is, as Hilton Als has put it, “a bard of the not-so-haute bourgeoisie.” Each of his films, on the other hand, is about grief.

Each tackles it differently. You can sandwich Manchester between Lonergan’s two previous films, in terms of ambition and subject. You Can Count on Me studies the troubled reconciliation of an adult brother and sister. Margaret is a post-9/11 dramatic epic set in New York City. It’s most directly about the moral crisis of a teenager who feels responsible for a pedestrian’s death. But Lonergan’s canvas is expansive: Margaret is full of distant, observant cutaways to the city — loud, chaotic, argumentative, alive. It’s in part a movie about how life goes on, how small the greatest moral crisis seems in the larger scheme of things. But it’s also about our ironic need for these crises, which tell us who we are and how we live. Margaret is one of the great films of the 21st century — and it almost wasn’t released. It was filmed in 2005 but sat in limbo for six years, thanks to a lengthy (some say excessive) editing process and a protracted legal battle with coproducer Gary Gilbert.

Manchester is smaller than Margaret but bigger than You Can Count on Me. When Lee is called back home to Manchester, there’s stuff to take care of: namely his brother’s house and, relatedly, his nephew Patrick, a high schooler with too many sports commitments and too many girlfriends for his own good. There are ghosts for Lee to avoid, too, of course — an ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams); a cemetery; and many of the other people he once knew, whose faces declare either skepticism or pity.

It’s a simple Lonergan premise, straightforward in that distinctive Lonergan way: An event brings characters together, and the rest of the film is spent showing us the myriad pressures that threaten to pull them apart. Manchester by the Sea is marked by tragedy. It isn’t one in the classical sense, but Matt Damon, who came up with the idea for the movie with John Krasinski, has said: “I never made it through this script without crying, and I never made it through any iteration of any cut of this movie without crying. It’s absolutely devastating. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever come across.”

One of Lonergan’s favorite modes of behavior is the frustrated response to failure — something his movies are full of. Dropped calls, for instance. It’s possible that no one in the Lonergan universe has proper phone etiquette: So many calls in his films become shouting matches. The symbolism is obvious — particularly in Manchester, which is so much about the difficulties Lee has expressing himself to others. But when you add to that stubbed toes, an overstuffed fridge that won’t close, and a stretcher that won’t properly collapse during the movie’s most tragic scene, you realize you’re witnessing a world that’s wholly divorced from the emotional needs and woes of people.

That sounds terrifying. For Lonergan, it’s a mere fact of life. Lonergan somehow finds a way to translate his worldview to the screen and stage without lecturing us or forcing his characters to become the mouthpieces for his take du jour. He asks old questions in a fresh way, purely through dramatic form. So what if we can’t change, and never get over our wounds? In the world of Lonergan, drama isn’t what happens when you change, but simply a consequence of being you.