Manchester by the Sea: Reflections on the Human Condition

No one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.—Julia Sugarbaker

I chide my twenty-something for goading me to watch horror films with him when we’re together. Twice he succeeded some years ago, once for The Ring (do not go there, gentle reader), and again for The Strangers, which is less horror than psycho thriller; these victories have fueled his hope for the future. I was talked into The Strangers because of its cast (could any Liv Tyler movie be all bad?), but by the end felt so wounded I’ll never revisit it, ditto the Merle Haggard standard “Mama Tried,” spine chilling now thanks to the movie. The Strangers came into our living room on the heels of an especially horrific week in my erstwhile family life; I watched it with my boy on the sofa next to me because it felt like the right thing to do at the time.

But I digress. I’m not a fan of horror because of its lingering effects: being deliberately scared seems emotionally expensive, damaging, and pointless. A friend once made a similar observation about sadness—there is so much of it everywhere in the world, why on earth would you want to provoke it on purpose?

I can think of some occasions where you should. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is an example, a reminder of an important chapter none of us should forget, ever. Going demands an emotional commitment—a willingness to embrace melancholy for the rest of the day anyway, and most likely longer: you will not emerge from that experience and then shout, Who wants ice cream! (And I would urge any family touring our nation’s capital to save it for the last day if it’s on your itinerary.)

We dipped into sadness Friday night, although I’m not sure we knew we were headed there at first, HCB and I. He brought home Manchester by the Sea after I mentioned I wanted to see it. Somewhere I’d watched the trailer or part of it, where a reluctant uncle found himself the unexpected guardian of his teenage nephew, and I somehow concluded this would be an uplifting and redemptive story. And I’d heard a scene on NPR that felt tragically comic, about frozen chicken and a frozen human corpse and the well-intentioned uncle trying to navigate his way through a teenager meltdown. At least it struck me as comic at the time.

Manchester by the Sea is instead a tragedy through and through—Shakespeare would be proud. You can find situational comedy in it to be sure; catharsis saves us in the end, because life without it is unthinkable after all. But stylistically you’d probably call this movie realist cinema, after the painting style where the artist leaves little to the imagination, exposing the subject unapologetically and without romantic flourishes (the movie’s score is haunting, at least). Or if you likened it to architecture you might call it brutalist.

The real genius of Manchester by the Sea lies in its character development. We understand the protagonist Lee Chandler because we’ve met him: the quiet apartment building maintenance man in Boston (could be anywhere), a working class hero wound tight as a drum, volatility simmering just beneath his calm demeanor. The movie wastes no time revealing this character trait. But as flawed as he is, you still find yourself in his corner, proof positive of a plausible and vulnerable character well played. Nor is Chandler merely flawed, he is ruined, the cause of ruination revealed to us over the course of the movie in a series of artful flashbacks. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee Chandler is brilliant: you can’t avert your gaze for the duration.

An undercurrent of substance abuse weaves its way through the plot, too, the scourge of our time. But the story is finally less about the physical and emotional consequences of addiction than it is about unbearable grief and damage to the human spirit, so profound in this character he is finally too frail to fulfill his emotional obligations to the people around him—he is damaged beyond repair.

The movie resonated with me more now than it might have five years ago, before I moved to New England and got the lay of the land, and observed the palpable effects of a failed economy (worse here than down South) and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the region. There is also a vulgarity in the common man here that would make even my endearingly shameless Irish grandmother blush were she alive today: if you do not know these people personally, you’ve at least stood shoulder to shoulder with them in line at the grocery store. Dropping the F-bomb is a way of life in some New England towns (Vermont is no exception), and you’re well advised not to ask anybody to put a sock in it, like I nearly did one afternoon at a local discount store before I thought better of it.

‘Crazy’ (or neurotic, if you prefer) is a trait that lies on a continuum from manageable to psychotic, but that most of us possess if we’re being honest, even if we’d rather not shine a light on it. There is a kernel of truth to the quip about Southerners parading around crazy and handing it a cocktail instead of hiding it in the attic. But in the Northeast, at least as portrayed in Manchester by the Sea, we understand the kind of crazy that comes after an unthinkable tragedy strikes for which there is no one to blame but yourself, can only seethe beneath the surface, erupting now and again in bits and pieces—in coarse language, in the occasional barroom brawl, and in frozen chicken mishaps, like a fault line belching out small tremors: at some point it will snap, as surely as a damaged soul somewhere beaten down by life will finally give up.

Most of us who’ve had time to live a little understand this story and know firsthand about permanent emotional damage—nobody is exempt from the human condition. But can there be a yardstick to measure the damage? High blood pressure? Cancer, or some other insidious disease? Years shaved from one’s life, which was so full of hope when it began? Or does significant emotional damage simply make you go mad over time? And if you did find a benchmark to measure the damage, how to fix it? There is no surgery, or neutralizing tincture for some kinds of crazy. But maybe there is more healing after all in parading it around than in hiding it in the attic.

Manchester by the Sea is worth your while if you’re willing to devote an evening to a little thoughtful sorrow; I suggest salty snacks and a good bottle of wine to soften the blow.