The Very American Dystopia of Manchester by the Sea

Lee Chandler, the very silently & deeply tortured protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, strikes us as a quintessentially American character: hard working, good looking, and with a disarming vulnerability that shines through his expressionless exterior. Despite this abundance of positive attributes, Lee has had a calamitous life.

Bearing the burden as proximate cause for the death of his three young children, Lee drifts. The details of the series of unfortunate events are revealed incrementally, in flashbacks, and in aggregate they give us the picture of this man failing to connect on any emotive level with the rest of humanity. Entirely devoid of joy or happiness, he finds it difficult to even grasp some modicum of meaning, some figment of purpose to live by.

That is, until he is called upon to foster his nephew, Patrick, upon the untimely demise of his older brother Joe (due to a degenerative heart condition). Young Patrick is just as quintessentially American as Lee, but in a manner exactly the inverse; in a dry-witted, hockey-playing, girl-chasing sort of way. Most of the movie portrays the interplay between these two generations of the Chandlers, the Uncle and the Nephew. In Patrick, we see what Lee must have been, before his sharp decent into alienation. And in Patrick, the story gives Lee an obvious & facile path to reclaim some measure of his humanity, some purpose, and perhaps even some joy.

But in what is perhaps the central thesis of the film, Lee evades this opportunity. While he certainly feels a tenderness towards Patrick, and a strong sense of filial responsibility, Lee cannot get himself to embrace their relationship, nor to draw from it some emotional succor. Instead, he retreats once again into isolation & oblivion, and hands off guardianship of the boy to a family friend.

It is Lee’s graceful gloominess, in contrast to the more life-affirming positivity of Patrick, that gives the movie its place in this year’s Oscar pantheon. Why, why, why, we must ask, can Lee not exorcise his ghosts, and find some revitalization in the various opportunities that present themselves (Patrick, amorous advances from women, tender words from his ex-wife). Why must he insist on sublimating his festering dehumanization into recurring violent outbursts against complete strangers (at least two bar-brawls are depicted). We cannot ascertain.

But it does seem to us that this feeling of numbness, of indifference, of emotional destitution, blights the American landscape today. We do not know the cause of it, exactly. Lee’s condition is a result of random misfortunes, events that are rare yet unremarkable, like an unwelcome house fire. It is not economic disenfranchisement that does him in, as is suggested of our country’s fly-over citizenry, nor drug abuse, nor any other systemic factor. Lee has been, simply, ordinarily & individually unlucky.

Manchester’s particular genius, however, lies not in its individual portrayal of Lee. In our present era, the value of the film lies in showing us the destructive effect on the individual of the erosion of his joie-de-vivre, of his raison d’etre. Lee’s plight is hard to watch. If this is the same Cross that much of America bears, then it is troubling circumstance indeed, and our fellow neighbors across the land deserve our societal sympathy. Unlike with Lee, whose misfortunes, as we stated, are particular to him, the American heartland is suffering from a more complex malady. But whatever the systemic causes of geographic decay, the toll paid at the human level is haunting.

And so, we begin… tN

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