Last night I left Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea feeling that I had just seen something moving and powerful, but I couldn’t figure out why I had such strong feelings.The movie is long and the many flashbacks often make it hard to follow (Did this event happen before or after that event?). After thinking about it, I think I know now what Lonergan is saying in his film: Life is often tragic, whether because of fate or because of human behavior, and finding redemption is a long and difficult process, but achievable.
Manchester is both a story and a character study. The main character Lee is a working class family man who makes a horrible mistake that results in devastating loss, perhaps the worst kind of loss that one can imagine. Afterwards, Lee is interviewed by two or three policemen who are obviously very sympathetic to him. When the interview is finished, Lee asks the policemen, “Are you going to let me go?” They respond,”A mistake is not a crime.” Lee is astonished and disappointed that the police do not wish to punish him for, in his mind, an act of enormous evil. A digression: Lonergan’s policemen are quite unlike police as they are usually portrayed in movies nowadays – as trigger happy, unsympathetic liars.
Since the police refuse to punish him, Lee punishes himself. He constantly starts fist fights that he knows he cannot win with groups of men who always pulverize him. He lives alone in small, run down apartments and even an unfurnished basement, and he refuses offers of friendship.
He does have one close relationship – with his nephew Patrick. His brother who dies at an early age from heart disease (a tragedy caused by fate) appoints Lee to be his son’s guardian.
Patrick is also suffering, not only because of his father’s early death, but also because of his mother’s alcoholism and then abandonment. When the mother apparently reforms (although there are hints that she really hasn’t), she tries to find comfort in fundamentalist Christianity which is not for either Patrick or Lee.
Patrick, age 16, finds comfort and distraction in sex. He has two girlfriends at the same time. Lee is offered sex a number of times, but refuses it. Lee understands that sex will not provide forgiveness for his mistake, and he denies himself pleasure or distraction; he wants pain and suffering.
In another moving and crucial scene (like the one with the policemen), Lee runs into his former wife Randi who has remarried and given birth to a child. Despite that, Randi is suffering and desperate to reconcile with Lee. She offers to meet him for lunch; he refuses. She says that she loves him, which has no effect on Lee. Randi wants to re-create the past which she, on some level, believes would relieve her pain. Lee understands that they cannot re-create the past; what is done is done.
As Patrick’s guardian, Lee develops a kind of father-son relationship with his nephew. In the last scene, Lee and Patrick are shown sitting on a fishing boat at the end of the deck. You see them from somewhat of a distance, but you can’t miss that Lee is smiling at Patrick. He hasn’t smiled for a long time.
Lonergan is making a simple point (it might even be considered a cliche): Redemption and forgiveness come through escaping from your head and devoting yourself to helping others who have also lost their way.
The point may be simple, but most of what Faulkner called life’s “eternal truths” are simple. But Manchester by the Sea is not so simple. It is a masterful examination of people, who in different ways, endure and deal with life’s tragedies.