Uncle Nutcase

Manchester by the Sea.  A film by Kenneth Longegan.  With Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges. *****

Early in Manchester by the Sea, while the credits are rolling, there is a scene that continued to haunt me after the movie was over.  Two brothers were out on a commercial fishing boat with the son of the older one.  They were giving the kid a hard time, telling him all kinds of goofy shark stories, none of which he believes.  The younger brother says to his nephew something to the effect of, If you were really in a tight spot, and needed someone you could depend on, would you pick me or your father.  The kid says, my father.  His uncle says something like, that’s a pretty good answer, it’s not a bad answer, but I’ll tell you why it’s just a little off.

I probably have the dialogue all wrong; I didn’t realize how poignant that scene would eventually seem.  It was a brief scene of how things were before Everything Went to Hell.  What life might have been like if the bad thing hadn’t happened.

Early in the movie, the younger of these brothers, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is sitting in a bar.  It is years after that early scene on the fishing boat (one of the things about this movie is that the chronology jumps all over the place, but I never felt a moment’s confusion about where I was or what was going on).  Lee was hunched over a beer, and rather obviously had an attitude, and I leaned over to my wife and said, “He’s like those Irish guys that I used to see in bars in Cambridge and Boston.”

My idea of a bar—nurtured from my early adulthood in North Carolina—was that it was a quiet friendly place where everybody was welcome, nobody said much; people sat there and nursed a beer and relaxed.  But in our two years around Boston, while my wife was in graduate school, drinking in bars seemed to be a serious business, like you had to get loaded and out of your mind, and guys sat at bars with hunched shoulders as if waiting for a fight.  Sure enough, in this movie, it isn’t long before Lee is punching somebody out.  In another scene, a woman rather obviously tries to pick him up—he’s a nice-looking guy, sitting alone in a bar—and he doesn’t respond at all.  He makes her look like a fool.

“Too long, too slow, too dreary,” an older woman said to her friend at the end of this movie, as she shuffled out of the theater.  My wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  We had just seen a major work of art (or at least a work of art, which seems in short supply in movie theaters this year).  What was the woman thinking?

Manchester by the Sea is being advertised as a movie about a man who has to move back to his home town and look after his teenage nephew after his brother dies, and strictly speaking, that’s what it is, the way Moby Dick is about a guy trying to kill a whale.  It’s true as far as it goes.  You just haven’t said much yet.

Manchester by the Sea is a character study of an ordinary man to whom an unspeakable tragedy happens (and the tragedy isn’t the early death of his brother from congestive heart failure, though that event sets the plot of the present day in motion).  In that way it is like Kenneth Lonergan’s other great movie, You Can Count on Me, except that in that movie, the unspeakable thing happens at the beginning, so it is the backdrop for everything that follows.  In Manchester by the Sea there’s a long period when we don’t know the unspeakable thing.  We just know we’re in the presence of a deeply troubled young man.  We don’t know what his problem is.

His problem is guilt.  Dreadful guilt.

It’s a movie about ordinary working class guys, Lee Chandler and Joe Chandler (though Joe has died in the present time of the movie, there are plenty of flashback scenes where we see him).  They’re mindless guys, who drink too much, goof around, love their children but aren’t necessarily great fathers.  In one of the early scenes we see Lee coming back to his house after that day when they were out on the water telling his nephew the shark stories, and Lee has three children of his own, a wife (Michelle Williams) who is home with a bad cold and has been taking care of them while he’s been out on the water.  He’s nice to everybody but has had, by his own admission, eight beers, and he’s annoying his wife about having sex even though she’s not feeling well and he’s not at his most attractive (and all they need is another kid).

His brother Joe’s wife (though we hardly see her) is a falling down drunk, and Lee has a party with some friends where there’s too much drinking, too much noise, and where marijuana and cocaine apparently show up.  But his wife Randi doesn’t put up with much crap; she doesn’t hesitate to tell him he’s wrong when he’s acting like an ass, and to kick him and all of his friends out of the house if she has to.  And he’s never abusive.  Just mindless, and a pain in the ass.

In the midst of all that the unspeakable thing happens, which both is and isn’t his fault, and he becomes full of guilt, deeply depressed, and a pariah in his home town, which he moves away from.  That’s the man whose brother has died, and who is being asked to take care of his nephew.  He wants to dig a hole somewhere and die, and suddenly has this new responsibility.

We see a number of scenes between Lee and his nephew (Lucas Hedges).  Patrick knows everything that has happened to his uncle; he’s lived through it all, as the whole family has.  He’s also a sixteen year old whose father has just died, though the man had congestive heart failure and his death was not unexpected.  But he’s a kid who loves his life—going to school, playing hockey, playing in a band, chasing girls—and who has always wanted to take over the boat his father owned.  The problem is that he can’t do that yet, and there isn’t enough money for the upkeep of the boat.  The real problem is that his uncle doesn’t want to be in that town, not only because it reminds him of what happened, but because he keeps seeing people who know.  He wants to do the right thing by his nephew.  But he can’t do the ideal thing.  There’s a poignant scene where he says that. “I can’t beat it.  I can’t.”

Some of the best and most moving scenes are nevertheless between Lee and Patrick.  This irreconcilable conflict between a deeply depressed uncle and a kid who wants to get on with his life are deeply touching and often funny.  And as great as Affleck is—his is an Academy Award type performance—Hedges holds his own against him.  He’s the likable one.

My wife says there’s always a moment of Grace in a Lonergan film, and in this one it’s a scene late in the movie between Lee and his estranged wife, Affleck and Michelle Williams.  They have a conversation that is painful and long overdue; both he and she are pained and awkward in it, terribly vulnerable.  They don’t resolve anything, but they talk.  As brief as the scene is, it made the movie for me, with these two marvelous actors.  Without that scene it would have been a very good movie.  With it, it became a great one, with great performances.

It is a long movie, but not too long.  It takes its time with its scenes, and lets them play themselves out, but I wouldn’t call it slow.  And dreary isn’t the right word at all.  It’s sad.  It’s deeply sad, as life sometimes is.  But it redeems itself, as Lee, despite the way he’s damaged, redeems himself.  He can’t do what his nephew wants.  But he comes as close as he can.