Sunday, June 4, 2017

Manchester by the Sea

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The film Manchester by the Sea (2016) shows the alienation of character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) in his aloofness, anger, inability to communicate, lack of direction, and lack of feeling at home anywhere.

We know that Lee was a happy person at one time by the opening flashback scene where he is on a boat, joking with his nephew. But, at the current time he is a solitary figure living in Boston, working as a handyman/janitor at a rundown apartment building. He is almost uncommunicative with the tenants, as one drones on with anecdotes or another rudely expresses bitter complaints. He overhears how one female tenant is attracted to him while speaking about Lee as he services her apartment, but he makes no effort to pursue a relationship. He acts the same way with another woman at a bar, who spills a drink on him as an icebreaker. Actually, although Lee is the focus of the story, these other characters are not direct in their communicative skills, possibly showing how Lee’s condition is indicative of a general modern-day problem of connecting with others. At first it appears Lee is detached, but the looks on his face show that he harbors hostility, and unleashes a few expletives at one of the female residents. Indeed, it seems that the only way he interacts with people is with avoidance or anger, as we observe him getting into a bar fight for the simple reason that two men are looking at him. We see him alone in his room, watching sports on TV, and then falling asleep. Thus, the film depicts him as an unhappy, angry loner, who seems to be unable to be social.

His work fixing up other peoples’ places is ironic, because we learn that he has been unable to put his own broken life back together. We later learn that his negligence in not screening in a fireplace caused a blaze which destroyed his home, resulting in the death of his children. This tragedy took place in Manchester, where he once lived. When he finds out that his beloved brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) is succumbing to his congestive heart failure, he is forced to confront his traumatic past by returning to Manchester. As he drives there, we see his anger when he encounters traffic congestion during his trip. Thus, his guilt may be manifesting itself in displaced aggression towards others.

When he arrives, he discovers that he did not make it in time to see his brother alive, which, again, he probably sees as a failure on his part. He appears unemotional, though, trying to suppress his guilt. Ironically, he only seems to show affection not to living people, but only to the lifeless corpse of his brother, which he holds and kisses. This scene emphasizes his inability to engage other human beings. When he finds out that his brother appointed him as the guardian of Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee can’t conceive of himself being capable of fulfilling the role. Despite their earlier affection for each other before the accident, the two are now estranged because of Lee’s many years of absence, and there is a disconnect in their relationship. Patrick wants to repair his father’s tour boat, and Lee just wants to close down the business, not wanting any ties to Manchester, which is a painful reminder of his tragic past. When they are parked outside of the morgue, and Lee asks his nephew if he wants to go in to see his dad, Patrick says “let’s go.” The youth meant he wanted to see his father, but Lee, wanting to escape, takes the boy’s statement to mean he wants to leave, and starts to drive off. Here we have a small but telling scene of how Lee is unable to communicate with his nephew, and, thus, how he fails to connect with him.

We do get a glimmer of Lee’s parental feelings when he seems to question Patrick’s sexual involvement with one girl while he is pursuing another, but it is just a glimpse. When his nephew asks if it’s okay for his current girlfriend to stay over, Lee, not understanding the role of fatherly authority thrust upon him, wants to know why Patrick is asking him. He then awkwardly thinks he must show some mature responsibility, so he mentions about using a condom, after which Patrick reassures him that his father already had the sex talk with his son, invalidating Patrick’s fatherly attempt. In a flashback, we are reminded that Lee, at least at one point, was a loving parent, and husband to his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). In contrast, Patrick’s family life was far from ideal, since his mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), was an alcoholic. Patrick tries to connect with his supposedly recovering mother after the death of his father. However, she is still shaky despite trying to compensate by getting involved in a regimented religious relationship with Jeffrey (Mathew Broderick), and can’t even get though an afternoon reunion with her son. That Patrick shares a propensity to displaced anger with his uncle can be seen in the fact that the young man is hostile playing hockey, yelling profanities at a fellow teammate, which also echoes his uncle’s inability to communicate.
 We have a flashback of Lee showing his bare apartment, which he has moved into in Boston, to Joe and Patrick after the loss of his children. The sparseness of the living space echoes Lee’s not feeling that his new place is a home to him, and stresses his rootless existence. In the present, we see more of the lack of connecting with others. There is a painfully awkward scene where Lee and the mother of a friend of Patrick’s, who is attracted to Lee, are unable to communicate. This episode shows that Lee’s helplessness in social relationships spreads beyond himself. We also have a symbolic scene illustrating Lee’s lack of personal direction, and how he now feels lost in his old hometown, when he and his nephew wander around in the cold because Lee can’t remember where he parked his car.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene of the movie is the one where Lee encounters his ex-wife, Randi, outside, appropriately, in the cold. The lighting shows one framed in darkness, the other in light, to emphasize the schism between the two. Randi basically wants to apologize for the terrible things she said, blaming Lee for the accident, and it appears she wants to say that she still loves him. Their dialogue is a series of sentence fragments, but they, ironically, can communicate their sadness and caring in their expressions and body language, and we see Lee totally vulnerable and emotional here.

At first Lee wants to place Patrick with Joe’s boating partner, and even is encouraging about his mother, Elise, which angers Patrick, who accuses his uncle of trying to get rid of him. Lee looks for a job in Manchester, but encounters hostility from those who seem to blame him for running off after the accident. This fact shows how he is unable to return to his former home. Lee demonstrates that he wants to take care of Patrick, at least until the boy reaches age eighteen, by suggesting that his nephew move to Boston. But, Patrick still sees Manchester as his home, and refuses to leave. Lee begins to parent in his own way, allowing time for Patrick to be intimate with the girl he is pursuing. He sells his brother’s rifles so that the engine in Joe’s boat can be fixed, allowing the business to continue. But, after the shattering confrontation with Randi, he confesses that he can’t “beat” the trauma he experienced.

Lee does arrange for Patrick to stay in Manchester. He tells Patrick that he got a job as a handyman in Boston in a smaller complex, so he won’t be as stressed out. Lee assures Patrick that he doesn't have to come to Boston because George (C. J. Wilson), Joe’s partner, is going to adopt him, and handle the finances. They can rent out Joe's home until Patrick turns eighteen and then he can move back in. When he’s twenty-one, he can do what he wants with the house. 
The change in the weather from the coldness of winter to the warmth of spring at the end of the story reflects the change in the relationship between uncle and nephew. They were not able to bury Joe previously because the ground was too cold. Now, the earth can accept him, and Lee and Patrick can try to bury the hurt of his passing. It also reflects the thaw in their relationship. Lee has rented a room in Boston with space for his nephew to visit, if he so desires. The film thus offers the possibility of hope for Lee to have a place he can call home and a bond with a member of his family. The movie ends as it began, with Lee and Patrick on a boat, suggesting a happier time in the past, and the chance for it in the future.

The next film is Annie Hall.

1 comment:

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