Boys Don’t Cry: The Masculine Melodrama Of ‘Manchester By The Sea’

The hype (and controversy) has been on Casey Affleck, but director Kenneth Lonergan might be the real star.

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Suck it up. Keep it to yourself. Man up. These are familiar mottos of masculinity, phrases that — even if unsaid — encapsulate how men are traditionally supposed to react to trauma. Overt expressions of grief are implicitly forbidden within our modern conception of ‘manliness’.

In Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan studies this brand of maleness — defined by emotional reluctance and reticence — while adroitly examining how damaging these paralysing strictures can be. The film offers so many examples of man’s inability to communicate across a string of awkward encounters. When Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) passes away, his Boston-based brother — the film’s protagonist, Lee (Casey Affleck) — returns to his titular hometown to arrange affairs. A hospital corridor conversation quivers with nervousness and uncomfortable platitudes.

In the immediate aftermath of Joe’s death, his teenaged son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), argues about Star Wars and Star Trek with his male friends and accepts inept advice from his hockey coach (Tate Donovan). Lee reluctantly takes on the role of guardian to his nephew, but any time their discussion approaches an honest emotional expression, Lee makes sure to shut it down.

Lee represents the distillation of uncommunicative masculinity as well as its deleterious effects. Even before he learns of his brother’s death, he seems somehow broken. He shies away from any kind of intimacy. At his day job as a janitor, he avoids a customer’s overt flirtation. Later, he repeats the process when out at a bar, clumsily eluding a woman’s attempt to break the ice. The closest he comes to emotional expression is picking fights with strangers.

It becomes clear that there’s a deeper grief plaguing Lee beyond his brother’s passing, especially when his modern malaise is compared to flashbacks from a decade prior. Then, he seemed jovial and open-hearted, joking around with his wife (Michelle Williams) and kids. Lonergan withholds the particulars of Lee’s past — and the trauma buried within — until roughly halfway through the film, and those particulars are devastating without feeling at all manipulative.

Post-Traumatic Mess

Manchester by the Sea isn’t simply a story of trauma, but rather an interrogation of how we react and recover — or don’t — from such events. Late in the film, Lee protests that he can’t “beat it” — the emotional aftereffects of the immense trauma he’s experienced — but there’s no indication that he’s made a serious effort to try. His approach to suffering is one of denial and self-imposed seclusion: the notion of seeing a therapist, or even having an authentic conversation with a friend about his feelings is regarded as entirely alien.

Significantly, there’s never really an alternative offered as to how Lee should cope with his grief. Through the flashbacks, his brother refuses to allow him to indulge his grief and his attempts at support are ham-fisted: the scale of Lee’s suffering will not be salved by a few new items of furniture, for instance. There’s the occasional pushback on this. Patrick’s girlfriend at one point challenges the boys’ focus on sci-fi over a serious discussion of emotions, but within the world of the film, they’re instantly and reflexively rejected.

It’s important to note that Manchester by the Sea isn’t as dark as perhaps I’ve made it seem. While the film’s hardly a light-hearted crowd-pleaser, its representation of grief finds slender rays of light amidst the darkness. Despite the grimness of the subject matter, the screenplay recognises that suffering exists within a day-to-day life filled with moments of happiness, of good humour and, occasionally, of utterly unexpected comedy. The awkwardness of the dialogue is mined for laughs almost as often as it is for pathos.

The screenplay also contains an acknowledgement of economic realities that are rare in this sort of character study. As a janitor, Lee is scarce able to afford the lifestyle of Manchester. What was once, we gather, a working-class community for fisherman and the like, is now a ritzy coastal cottage town. His reluctance to assimilate himself back into this community is largely motivated by his own emotional reticence, but it’s also simply driven by the fact that the town he grew up in has been gentrified to the point of inaccessibility for men like him.

Oscars Contenders 

Three of the film’s main cast have been nominated for acting awards at this year’s Oscars — Affleck, Hedges and Williams. Though plenty of people take great issue with Affleck’s nod given his prior allegations of sexual assault, it’s hard to quibble with the standard of his performance. He seems likely to walk away with the golden statuette come February 26, despite the controversy.

Affleck’s performance is defined by the kind of “emotional retrenchment and wariness” that has become de rigeur in Hollywood of late: a role where the energy is spent denying emotion rather than expressing it. Upon re-watch, however, I’d rank Hedges’ supporting performance as superior — his easy-going exterior masks profound anxieties about his father and his future.

In my book, the ultimate talent ensuring Manchester by the Sea’s success is Kenneth Lonergan (who has also gained an Oscar nomination for his work). This is his third feature — following the well-received but commercially unsuccessful Margaret — but his confidence behind the camera suggests a director with many decades of experience. The film is densely populated with subtle examples of how small choices can make all the difference.

Take the way the flashbacks are incorporated into the narrative. Rather than employing a flashy non-linear structure, there are simply two timelines — now and roughly ten years ago — running parallel. Where other directors might stylistically distinguish the past and the present — a subtle bit of colour correction, different lighting, even obvious differences in costuming/hair-styling — Lonergan makes little attempt to differentiate the two eras. With this, we’re offered insight into Lee’s headspace where the events of the past replay themselves over and over and overshadow the now.

It’s this direction from Longergan that makes Affleck’s performance so affecting too as he rhymes his camerawork and editing choices with Lee’s character. When he first arrives at the hospital, the until-then sedate rhythms of the film shift into quick cutting that mirrors Lee’s nervous discomfort. Late in the runtime, there’s a suggestion of hope, of healing, of a path forward: and all of sudden the camera’s rhythm changes again, assuming fluidity and flexibility in a film up until then defined by a slow-moving or static camera.

That fluidity doesn’t last long. We might hope that Lee’s emotional wounds will be healed, that his love for his nephew will overcome years of internalised self-hatred. But this isn’t that sort of film. Healing from this kind of trauma requires honest communication, emotional vulnerability, and an active desire to seek help: all the things that men just aren’t supposed to do. Manchester by the Sea is a tragedy twofold, representing both unimaginable suffering and the conditioned, masculine inability to recover from it.

Manchester by the Sea is in cinemas from February 2.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at ccpopculture or pester him at @dacrewe.