SPOILER WARNING: Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) does not exist in a storybook world, and the film is the better for it. Instead of presenting a narrative full of needless exposition and clichés broken up by hugs and assurances that everything will be alright, the film gives its audience a presentation devoid of any hand-holding or false coddling. The characters that fill the film are equally blunt as well, with plenty of their own nuances and flaws that only add to the overall picture of harsh reality that the film paints. Simply put, there are no easy answers in Kenneth Lonergan’s film, and this is exactly the point. Were the film to assure its audience, and even its characters, that everything was going to be alright, it would betray the overall theme of the film. Manchester by the Sea is filled with imperfect and broken characters. Not all of them realize their imperfections, and even the ones that seek to cure their respective ails are unable to in the film. Much is said, but more goes unsaid; and herein lies the key to the world that the film creates, where closure and solutions to the problems of the world come secondary to presenting a honest portrayal of everything that it contains.
Each of the principle characters in Manchester by the Sea desire one form of closure in another, as does the audience of the film once they become acquainted with all of the respective issues. The lone exception to this rule is Lee Chandler. While Lee may be among the most damaged of all of the people that occupy the film, his form of closure is not that of reconciliation in the traditional sense. Instead of looking for a resolution to the problems created by his mistakes, Lee instead seeks his own crucifixion. Following the death of his three children, for which he is indirectly responsible, Lee becomes suicidal to the point that he steals a policeman’s gun in attempt to shoot himself in the head. But nothing is that simple for Lee or anyone else. After his realization that his end will not be brought about by himself or anyone else, it is decided that he will not be prosecuted for his tragic mistake, Lee essentially resigns himself to his new fate of a damaged life. Recognizing his own personal demons and resolving to live with them but not excise them, Lee does not seek to truly live at all. Residing in a basement apartment and only fixing other peoples’ material issues, Lee becomes nothing more than someone whose flaws become the only real feature of his existence other than his isolation.
The lone driving force that seeks to stop Lee from this path that he has set himself on is his brother, Joe Chandler. However, following his brother’s death, Lee is hardly visibly distressed. There are small cracks of true emotion her and there, but overall Lee maintains the stoic composure that has come to define him following his initial tragedy. But it is indicated that the death of Joe is simply a force that draws out the deeper issues inside Lee. Nothing truly changes in Lee after the death of his brother. He still gets into the same sucker-punch incited bar fights that he did before and his general attitude towards those that were formerly close to him, such as his ex-wife Randi, does not change at all. Instead, Lee is simply annoyed and perturbed by these changes. After numerous interactions with his now-fatherless nephew Patrick, Lee does resolve to try to help him maintain his life by attempted to reintegrate himself into his hometown. But his first attempt at finding a job ended by another employee stating that they never want to see him there again. A second inquiry at another location does not accomplish anything either but this time a reason is not given. Once again, the film is less concerned with explaining its actions and more so in how the characters handle them.
Overall, the film shows more than it tells. No one ever directly speaks of the accident that took the lives of Lee’s children; there are only whispers and allusions to it, as well as the uneasy regard in which most of the town holds Lee. No one ever sits down and spells out in detail what has happened to Lee and why he is the way he is. Everything is left to the inference of the audience based on what they have been shown. Lee and Randi’s divorce is never shown, and the only information about it can be drawn from what Randi alludes to. Everything and everyone else in the film follows this pattern. Lee never explains why he incites bar fights, just as he never explains anything else. The film instead frequently dives into his head by way of flashbacks. While these flashbacks may show what Lee is thinking about, they do not show how he is thinking about it. Even though the flashbacks may correspond to what is happening in the present in one way or another, Lee’s actions following them are the only true way to interpret them.
By denying the audience any direct answers, the film also denies them closure. Many problems are presented in Manchester by the Sea, but few of them came into existence solely for the length of time that the film covers. Joe’s heart condition has existed for a great deal of time prior to the start of the film; and the same can be said for almost every other issue, such as Lee’s relationship with Randi and even his relationship with his nephew and the town at large. But though these issues may evolve throughout the film, none of them are resolved. Joe does die, but his death is only the catalyst for the resurfacing of Lee’s many conflicts and problems. Some issues that come up in the film are resolved before the conclusion, such as who will take care of Patrick, but these problems have only come into existence so that Lee and those around him can be studied. They are resolved as the film concludes, but the more critical ones are not. Lee cannot bring himself to have a cathartic dinner with his ex-wife for the same reason that he ultimately cannot relocate himself to his hometown. He knows he is beat, that his greater problems cannot be resolved, and so he exits the film as he came in: alone and damaged.
Closure is elusive for the characters in Manchester by the Sea. Problems go unresolved, relationships remain tumultuous, and ultimately there is a lack of healthy communication between any of the characters. The same can be said for the audience of the film. By not resolving anything for the audience, such as showing an ending, happy or not, for Lee’s problems, the audience is left without closure. It is never spelled out why the townspeople feel the way they do about Lee, and so inferences are all that the audience has to go on. If the film were to spell anything out for the audience or provide a level of closure to them that is not afforded to Lee or any of the other characters in the film, it would lose the identification that it has established between the audience and its characters. By keeping things unresolved for almost everyone all around, the film not only maintains a sense of realism, but it also keeps the audience on the same page as Lee and company. It is true that everyone else in the film would know more about their problems than the audience does, but this level of information-withholding is necessary to put everyone on the same page. The lack of closure that Manchester by the Sea, both inside and outside the film, keeps the film true to its mission of providing an honest and complex look at the lives of its characters, and overall this is one of the strongest features of it.