Manchester by the Sea02 Dec 2016
In this political season, there’s been a lot of discussion of the American identity, especially American maleness. I didn’t go into Manchester by the Sea expecting an exploration of maleness, or white maleness, but that’s the biggest thing I got out of it. Afterward, reading reviews and comments on the film, I’ve noticed, that the film seems to have struck a chord among white male critics in particular.
Lee Chandler, played superbly by Casey Affleck, is a laconic man, bound up in his emotions, but unable to connect through communication. The result is not only that he creates distance between himself and those trying to get through to him, but that his immediate environment is marked by tension and agita. Men, in particular, who have this affect end up creating this atmosphere around them, often without realizing it. The brooding, constant drinking (for numbness perhaps, but perhaps also as an effort to lubricate emotionality or words out of themselves), and feeling wound up so tightly is a particularly male trait. Perhaps even a particularly American male trait. There’s a cultural history to be written about this personality going back to John Wayne, through Archie Bunker, to Clint Eastwood and on. It is a trait exacerbated by the weight of performative maleness and one that most American men probably won’t willingly give up, choosing to fight and lash out at the possibility of change.
Everyone around Lee, his nephew, ex-wife, former sister-in-law, even his very-American-brother, tries and fails to get through to him. The greatest sadness, I think, is that there will likely come a day, when he is old and alone, when he will realize that he could have changed. He could have stopped trying so hard to keep things bottled up, let himself fall apart a little, and brought love into his atmosphere and received love in return. Kenneth Lonergan (quickly rising on my list of favorite directors, if for no other reason than his incredible grasp of teenage life) gives us a glimpse of this change near the end of this film. But whether this change comes for Lee is anything but inevitable.