[Author’s Note: This post contains significant spoilers for Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 film, Manchester by the Sea. If you don’t want some of the film’s major reveals spoiled, you might want to avoid reading this until you’ve seen the film.]
I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Hell. Hell doesn’t have to be Satan inflicting infinite pain for eternity. Hell can be something as simple as you and everyone you love suffering… suffering and not having any answers for why you hurt or any solutions to make the misery go away. Manchester by the Sea‘s Lee Chandler isn’t just trapped in his own private Hell. His self-immolation is burning everyone around him.
Kenneth Lonergan’s films chart the crush of familial responsibility. In his debut feature, You Can Count On Me, Laura Linney’s Samantha has to be the adult in a world where her parents died when she was a kid. Her brother (Mark Ruffalo) is an unreliable drifter. The father of her son is out of the picture. Samantha doesn’t have the luxury of screwing up, but when she inevitably does, she self-flagellates because she knows somebody has to carry her family’s burden. And she’s the only person she can rely on.
In Margaret, J. Smith Cameron’s Joan tries to balance her career as a successful stage actress against the crumbling mental health of her daughter Lisa. Lisa witnessed (and was partially responsible for) a horrific car accident. Throw in the already tumultuous horrors of being a teenage girl, and Lisa is a powder-keg of guilt, sex, and drug abuse. Joan just wants to focus on her big play and a budding new romance but she has to care to for her daughter, and the film doesn’t shy away from the costs/resentments that come from that care.
The people in life that we wind up hurting the most are almost invariably our family. They’re the people that we’re closest with when we’re young and when we haven’t acquired the emotional tools for not just handling our own problems but helping other people to handle their problems as well. We don’t want to hurt them, but you inevitably fuck up in life, and the people who are most likely to get caught in the blast radius of our endless personal implosions are our families.
In Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) never acquired the emotional tools for handling life’s problems. Lee isn’t simply emotionally stunted. By the time the film’s plot begins, his capacity for emotional reasoning is non-existent.
Lee may have just been emotionally stunted when he was a young man. His marriage with his wife (Michelle Williams) was toxic. As Randy cared for their kids, he’d go out on long trips on his brother’s boat. When she was sick with severe sinus issues, he wanted sex. When she asked him to be a responsible parent around their newborn, he exchanged thinly veiled insults with his wife. When it’s 2 AM and she needed their kids to get a good night’s rest, he was partying with his friends. Booze, pot, coke. All those fun things you want in a house with an infant and two little girls.
In his drunken negligence, Lee accidentally burned down his family’s home, and all of his children died in the fire. Lee’s wife left him. He bore no criminal responsibility for his children’s death, but that fire was his fault. His brother (Kyle Chandler) was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. His brother had been given ten years to live at most. And Lee fled the miasmatic tendrils of death that surround him by leaving his childhood home of Manchester and moving to a Boston suburb to be a janitor.
When the film initially finds Lee just before his brother’s inevitable death from heart failure, Lee is barely capable of having a conversation with another person. When people are friendly to him, he has nothing to say. No thoughts. No observations. No warm gestures. Just uncomfortable silence. And if someone is rude to him or Lee can come up with an imagined slight, he responds with violence.
Lee is a walking husk. Everything essentially human about him is gone. The tragedy of losing his children and his wife because of his own mistakes destroyed him. But his destruction was so total because Lee was never forced to learn to deal with feelings and disappointment and the myriad complex tragedies of life to begin with.
Up until I was a teenager, I was a viciously angry person. I was small, effeminate, and affectionate. I was all of the things that society teaches men they shouldn’t be. And men inflicted one cruelty after another on me. I knew that I was mistreated. I knew what it was about me that led to others bullying me. They never let me forget it. But it took me so long to realize that I was hurting because of the patriarchy and not because there was something inherently wrong with me.
And during that period where I couldn’t figure out why I had to experience psychological torture and physical abuse from cousins and classmates, I raged against everything in the world. But, specifically, I raged against everything in myself that the patriarchy taught me to hate. I started to hate women. I hated gays. I hated emotions which I equated with weakness. And I worked so hard to be the worst version of myself because that was what so many of the other men in my life asked from me.
It took a violent incident with my sister when I was 13 to realize how much I was spiraling out of control. For years, my sister had become the symbol of everything I hated in me. She and I are damn near twins despite being four years apart in age. I hated her kindness. I hated her ability to be both feminine and masculine with such ease. I hated how confident she could be in the world around her. And I was horribly cruel to her. That eventually exploded into the incident when I was 13… an incident that also wound up costing me my relationship with my mother for nearly six years.
I carried so much hate inside of me for so long because I didn’t have the support structure in place to confront the intersection of my struggles with mental health, the patriarchy, and rural poverty. It took me realizing that I didn’t have any friends… realizing that I was miserable every second of every day… realizing that I could never be the man society wanted me to be. Me coming to terms with the fact that I was non-binary was a more than decade long process of actively rejecting — once and for all — what was expected of me as a man because I was exhausted to my bones letting my sex chart my behavior and feelings. I choose. And I chose warmth, compassion, and solidarity with all of the other victims of patriarchal oppression.
Lee never stood a chance against the patriarchy.
As much as I hate the patriarchy and all of the pain it’s caused women and trans folks such as myself, I feel pity for the people who continue to embody it. Patriarchy is an ideology — like capitalism or white supremacy — and ideologies that have had millennia to cement themselves are very difficult to demolish. A sad truth of our society is that it’s built in such a way that the majority of men are never forced to acknowledge the horrors of patriarchal supremacy… horrors that injure them in addition to women.
Another unfortunate truth is that it takes an education in feminism and social justice to combat patriarchy and Lee Chandler never received that sort of education. Ex-urban poverty is suffocating. People are just trying to get by. The working class needs feminism as much as if not more than the middle/upper class, but the systems that deliver a feminist education are often missing from working class communities. Emotional intelligence is feminism. Brooding masculine silence and anger is the patriarchy. Lee was engulfed in the latter.
And Lee’s severe anger and emotional immaturity costs him his family and later his ability to care for the now parentless son of his deceased brother. Lee can’t care for himself or anyone else because genuine care requires an ability to deal with how you feel and helping other people deal with how they feel. And Lee just can’t. And his nephew who is now without a father — and whose mother is an alcoholic who abandoned him — has no family to turn to as he deals with his losses and the pains of his own adolescence and struggles with what masculinity means.
Manchester by the Sea ultimately lacks some of the subtleties of Lonergan’s earlier work. There’s nothing nuanced about Lee. But as a portrait of what happens to yourself and your family when you never learn how to deal with the endless traumas of life, its resonance is apparent. The President of the United States and the men he surrounds himself with and who run this country are toxic masculinity defined. And it’s on every last one of us to confront the patriarchy so that we don’t have another generation of men incapable of empathy and healthy emotional responses.