Grief and Isolation in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea

Spoiler warning. Our In-Focus series takes a look at Manchester By The Sea. 

OVER the past year American cinema has given us some beautifully tender and moving moments. The kiss in Moonlight, the planetarium dance in La La Land and the closing revelation in Arrival.

But none more heart-rending than the ‘stroller scene’ in Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent Manchester By The Sea.

A moment which brings together former husband Lee (Oscar winning Casey Affleck) and wife Randi (Michelle Williams, another Oscar winner). Two broken hearts that are stranded at different stages of an unbearable grieving process – the loss of their three children in a house fire caused by Lee’s negligence.

It is a difficult, uncomfortable and emotionally compelling scene. Three minutes of cinema that will remain ingrained in my brain forever.

Speaking at a Curzon Q&A earlier this year, Lonergan explained the thought process behind the scene. He said: ‘I said to Casey: you cannot bare to speak to her, but you also don’t want to hurt her feelings for asking. To make her feel bad for trying to speak to you. But you also have to try and get out of the conversation.

‘I said the same to Michelle: you have to reach out to him and pull him out of the hole he’s in, but you don’t want to hurt him by doing it.’

The scene arrives with Lee, still at the bottom of his irreconcilable pit of anguish, and Randi, now re-married and ready for some form of reconciliation. All the while the stroller, a signifier of Randi’s progress and her willingness to continue with life by creating another human being, sits as a silent barrier between them.

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Moving away from the stroller scene, Lonergan reinforces Lee’s self-imposed isolation with his framing.

Lee is often shunted to the side of the screen or captured slightly out of our reach. When Lonergan’s camera does get close, Lee’s eyes drift to one side or, even more evasively, to the floor.

Likewise, Lee’s posture is rigid and guarded. His shoulders are hunched in defeat and his arms rarely move from his side – unless he is ready to throw a few fists. Indeed, Lee seems willing to make any excuse to get in a fight and, better still, get beaten up.

The brawling, partially a result of his Bostonian machismo, also acts as an outlet for self-harm – in many ways a less definitive punishment than his attempted suicide in the police station.

The life Lee has set out for himself is akin to a prison life-sentence.

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His desolate mourning is only underlined by the people around him. The film opens with janitor Lee (a jack of all trades) attending to customers who have issues going on in their lives. One moment, we view a grandmother making plans to attend a Bar Mitzvah. The next, we see a flirtatious woman on the phone to her friend seemingly infatuated with Lee.

Lee, for the most part, remains emotionless or is provoked into losing his temper, triggering a rebuke from his boss. He returns to the solitude of his barren room to fall asleep while watching hockey with a beer in his hand.

But is it his relationship with nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) which make his grieving most apparent.

When the two return home from visiting Joe’s body (his brother and Patrick’s father), Patrick immediately asks if he can invite his friends over. Patrick’s friends lift his spirits with aimless chat about Star Trek, while Lee retreats, once again, to spend the evening alone in his room.

This was not always the case for Lee. Manchester By The Sea is told in a non-linear fashion, adding a sense of mystery and dread to his story.

The most tragic flashback occurs as Lee finds out he has been chosen as Patrick’s guardian. Lonergan cleverly pairs together the haunting moments which have prompted Lee’s isolation with a moment, at least intended by his brother, to help pull him out of this state. To give him responsibility and purpose – something or someone to live for.

These flashbacks also offer a window into the kind of character Lee was before the tragic incident. A warm family man with many friends. A love for fishing, booze, weed and sex with his wife.

But in the present he has stripped himself of the right to a personal life. Even when Sandy’s mum (Sandy being one of Patrick’s girlfriends) invites him in for a friendly chat, Lee cannot bring himself to muster up thirty minutes of small talk with Jill (Heather Burns). Upstairs, Patrick is trying in vain to get into Sandy’s briefs (Sandy is flirtatiously played by Anna Baryshnikov).

Patrick’s grief, more manageable because of the inevitability of his father’s passing (Joe had a long standing heart condition), does not prevent him from continuing his life. As he points out to Lee, he has a band, many friends and at least two girlfriends.

Lee, on the other hand, has become a janitor, undeserving of anything else.

The closing moments of Manchester By The Sea show Lee and Patrick fishing on the family boat. This appears to be the only place Lee truly feels at ease.

The sea offers him respite and evokes memories of a better time. It allows him to be detached from the town where his children perished and out of reach from the locals who still gossip and judge him.

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Indeed, in an earlier scene, he had even cracked a smile on board before bumping into Randi back on land – a meeting marked by the thumping halt to the upbeat and promising sounds of Ella Fitzgerald’s I’m Beginning to See the Light.

Manchester by the Sea is a magical film which has deserved all the awards that has come its way. But that stroller scene will linger long in my mind. It deserves an award in its own right.

Thanks for reading. Please like, comment and share!

Also read: “I just burst into tears” – Q&A with Manchester By The Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

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