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Dark Journey

by Ross Douthat

Manchester by the Sea is the kind of movie that critics are pretty much required to like. It offers an actors’ clinic, with a brace of talented performers inhabiting the heavily accented paths of a north-of-Boston Irish Catholic clan. It has a mournful soundtrack, a colloquial, closely observed script, and a story whose central tragedy is designed to strip you raw. The writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan, and the star, Casey Affleck, are both major talents who haven’t had their biggest breakthroughs yet; if they want it, Manchester by the Sea has the feel of a career turning point for both.

I also rather hated it.

The movie starts in flashback, with Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, out on the water, horsing around with his kid-nephew Patrick while his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) carries them both on his fishing boat. Then we move to the present, to a wintry Boston, where Lee is the eminently capable, highly truculent handyman for a cluster of apartment buildings. He lives alone, he avoids female contact, he drinks and picks fights in bars — and then, the phone call from his hometown: Joe has had a heart attack and died.

So back to Manchester goes Lee, to organize the funeral and supervise the now-teenage Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and reconnect, in some form, with friends and family and neighbors from whom he’s become estranged. The why of the estrangement is the movie’s secret, for a while. People murmur as he passes (“Is that the Lee Chandler?”), and as the work of the funeral goes ahead, we get snatches of flashback — scenes of Lee horsing around with a wife (Michelle Williams) and three little kids, scenes of Joe getting his bad heart diagnosed, scenes of Joe’s wife and Patrick’s mother melting down on drugs and alcohol, scenes of Lee hosting a gang of friends at his house in midwinter while his wife complains (playing a nag, not being one) that they’re keeping the kids awake . . . and then, the catastrophe.

I won’t reveal the details; suffice it to say it’s terrible enough that you can understand completely why present-day Lee would have no wish to stay a moment longer in Manchester than he must to wrap up his brother’s affairs. But from beyond the grave, his brother has other ideas: He’s named Lee to be Patrick’s guardian, and Patrick has a life in Manchester — friends, a hockey team, and not one but two girlfriends (oh, kids these days) with whom he’s hooking up on the regular. He doesn’t want to leave, Lee doesn’t want to stay, and out of that conflict comes the dramatic tension of the movie’s second half.

What you might expect, given Hollywood narrative clichés, is that Patrick and Lee will forge a connection in shared grief, and that Lee will learn somehow to love and live again — becoming a surrogate father to his nephew, maybe dating the mom of one of Lee’s two belles, maybe taking over his late brother’s fishing boat and becoming a fisherman rather than a janitor. The story would write itself, but Lonergan has written a different, darker one, in which it isn’t clear at all that Lee can learn to be fully human once again — because some tragedies cut too deeply, some contaminations can’t be cured.

I respect the unsentimentality of this approach, and its realism cannot be denied. There are men and women who don’t come back from the worst experience they suffer, who remain trapped in the darkness, or at best take a few halting steps back out.

But from a storytelling perspective, those “learn to live again” clichés exist for a reason — because they give a story shape, urgency, and drama, and give the audience a reason to invest. And they have parallels in darker, unredemptive stories as well. There are many great tragedies, from Othello to The Godfather Part II, that take as dire a view of the human situation as Manchester does. But great tragedians from Shakespeare to Coppola also take care to offer the kind of movement, action, agency, and change-over-time that makes their pity-and-terror conjurings feel like more than just a browbeating, more than just a punishment delivered to the characters and audience alike.

Which is what Manchester by the Sea felt like to me — an overdetermined, loaded-dice series of unfortunate events that prides itself on the very things that make it boring and bludgeoning: the constant anticlimax and repetition, the brutalized recessiveness of Lee and the teenage unpleasantness of Patrick, the determination to transform any potential turning point or epiphany into something that trails off back into the same old misery instead.

Which, again, is a grimly realistic way to portray a certain kind of life experience. But not every life experience makes for a strong story, a gripping movie, a searing work of art. There are scenes in Manchester that sear — that cannot help but do so — but the movie as a whole does not. The experience, for all its verisimilitude, is like motoring through a dark tunnel and finding nothing there that’s worth taking with you back into the light.

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